Friday, January 30, 2009


Have you ever felt shy? What was happening to make that happen? Can you notice when other people are shy? How can you tell they are shy? Shyness isn’t often talked about and maybe that is because almost everyone is shy to some degree and has experienced it some time in their life.

Psychologists tend to define shyness as an awkwardness we feel when in the presence of other people. The mental health profession now refers to shyness as social anxiety which is fairly accurate. Unfortunately, some segments of the mental health community want to make it a mental illness. It has been shown that some of the motivation for doing so is the enormous amount of money that can be made from identifying shyness as a mental illness (see the book by Christopher Lane, Shyness: How normal behavior became a sickness. Psychology professor Bernardo Carducci reflects the attitude of many psychologists by defining shyness as a "personality trait" rather than as an emotional disorder or mental illness.

Shyness is common in new and unfamiliar situations and when interacting with authority figures and members of the opposite sex. A seemingly puzzling aspect of shyness is that it can be situation specific. It is well known that many performers who are confident performing in front of large crowds of strangers can worry and feel apprehensive and a lack of confidence in more natural settings.

When asked, people give three basic reasons why they are shy. The most common is connected to the role of the person’s family. Shy people will often say they had overprotective parents that prevented them from exploration and risk taking. Others think the family lifestyle (quiet, self-contained, few friends) encouraged shyness. Still others look back on growing up and realizing their parents were lacking in social skills, hence the shy person lacked adequate modeling in learning how to interact with people.

Another group of shy people mention personal habits such as being a negative person. They are described by friends as having a dour outlook on life or lacking basic social skills. When this is the reason given for being shy, the implication is that these problems are unchangeable. They have accepted the "fact" they always be shy for the rest of their life.

A final group of shy people blame some sort of "victimization" as the basis for being shy. They see genetics as the source of their shyness as in, "I was just born this way." Other people fault some type of personal disability whether real or imagined. Maybe they think they are not smart, or graceful, or articulate, or competent. Unfortunately, prior abuse can also account for why people feel shy. Abuse can have many sources such as family, teachers, coaches, bosses, or bullies.

What is it like to experience shyness? The experience can exist in one or more personal areas: thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, behavior (see The Domino Effect). Commonly, a shy person’s mental life is filled with negative self-talk such as personal devaluation, comparisons with others, and continually monitoring bodily sensations. Perceptions are also distorted. One study showed that shy men perceive an attractive woman as less attractive that non-shy men or even women do. This same study also found out that information learned while a person was feeling shy is likely to be likely remembered than when something is learned when the person is not feeling shy.

Emotions, the first half of the third domino, always includes anxiety and often embarrassment. For some people with severe shyness problems, more severe emotions can be present like depression and guilt. Shy people don’t know that shyness is a normal reaction and that people merely differ in terms of frequency and intensity.

Physical sensations, the second half of the third domino, almost universally includes butterflies in the stomach, shortness of breath, racing mind, increase pulsed and pounding heart. Some people perspire excessively or find themselves blushing. More severe physical sensations may include dizziness or lightheadedness, blurred vision, the sense that the ground is moving beneath them, or other unusual experiences. These are merely due to the stress caused by improper breathing, muscle tension and a racing mind. By learning to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, these symptoms will go away.

Certain behaviors are common among shy people such verbal silence around other people, poor eye contact, and social isolation. These behaviors are self perpetuating. Since we all monitor and evaluate our actions, these behaviors only "prove" a person is shy. Therefore, in similar situations, these behaviors are expected. The expectation increases the likelihood of shy behaviors and the shy behaviors increase the expectation they will occur again.

Much of the anguish a shy person feels occurs because of the continual self judgement of shyness as bad or unacceptable or even worse, a sign of being crazy. It is true that genetics and experiences in childhood can contribute to the flowering of shyness. This makes it appear that shyness cannot be overcome. We now know that our genes are interactive with the environment and changeable.

People cope with their shyness in many ways. Some become loud and boisterous in an attempt to hide the shyness. Unfortunately, they may go to the other extreme and turn people off. In the last few decades, a new coping was appeared and it is called "electronic extroversion." By joining chat rooms on the Internet, shy people can reinvent themselves. Because the Internet can make people anonymous it has been possible for shy people to be less inhibited. This allows them hide who they really are and connect with people from their new self. Although this may mirror actual intimacy, it can also become a barrier by making it more difficult to establish a face-to-face relationship.

It is not surprising shyness may result in electronic relationships. Surveys have discovered that a third of shy people use the Internet to establish social relationships. This can be a time consuming endeavor. More than forty percent of shy people use the Internet six to eleven hours a week.

So what can you do if you think you are shy? You may want to check yourself to see if you are and how seriously it affects your life. To do this you have to ask yourself the right questions. If you don’t know the right questions to ask, you can complete the Stanford Shyness Survey which was developed in the 1970s. It is a survey that is used for research but is available to the public. Because it is a research tool, you can’t score the survey so that it can tell you whether or not you are shy you are. Nevertheless, you can get a better sense of the extent, if any, of your shyness by clicking on the link and completing The Henderson/Zimbardo Shyness Questionnaire.

If you want to continue to search for tools to help you overcome shyness, you can look for books that show you what to do. The classic book by Philip Zimbardo, Stanford University Psychology Professor, is excellent (even with the somewhat outdated examples) because the first part gives a thorough description of what shyness is and how it affects so many people, both famous and non-famous. The second half of the book offers many suggestions for things you can do to begin your journey to minimize your shyness. The book is called Shyness: What It Is, What To Do About It.

Others books you may want to check into include:

If you have a shy child you might look at Shyness Isn’t a Minus: How to Turn Bashfulness Into a Plus, by J.S. Jackson & R.W. Alley. The reading level of this book is for kids between the ages of 4 and 8 even though the skills may be used for older children.

The Internet also offers great suggestions for combating shyness. Here are a few to get you started:

If you still need to get further help, you may want to try a psychologist who specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). Be aware that some therapists say they do this kind of therapy but have not been fully trained and are not really experts in this field. If you are uncertain, there are two tipoffs: if the psychologist does not give specific, written homework and/or wants to spend talking about your past, go somewhere else.

A CBT psychologist will use a technique called cognitive restructuring. There are many varieties, but they all come from the same roots. The Worry Free Life (Borders, Barnes & Noble, Amazon) adds a variation to CBT by externalizing negative thinking and calling it the "Voice." Some of the features of CBT will help you deal with worry, emotional regulation, behavioral skill training, and stress management.

At the very minimum, you can begin a "Shyness Journal." Use a two-column format and record the situations you feel shy in on the left hand side. On the right, record how you can begin to research and learn ways of overcoming shyness.

I hope this has been helpful to you or someone you know who is shy. Feel free to contact me at if you have any questions.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Female Brain: A Book Review

Louann Brizendine is a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California in San Francisco. Her book, The Female Brain, is a must read for every female and any male who wants to understand women. As most of you know, all babies begin life as females and remain that way for eight weeks. At that point if the female brain gets flooded with testosterone the baby gradually turns into a male.

This excessive male hormone has an immediate impact on the developing brain. The part of the brain that processes sex doubles in size. But that is not the only change that takes place. The communication center in the new male brain begins to shrink along with the part of the brain involved in hearing. I can hear most of you women saying, "That makes sense why he never listens to me, can’t carry on a decent conversation and thinks about sex all the time." As Dr. Brizendine puts it,

Just as women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion while men have a small country road, men have O’Hare Airport as a hub for processing
thoughts about sex whereas women have the airfield nearby that lands small and
private planes.
Dr. Brizendine wrote this book to explain why a women’s brain has an impact on what she values and thinks about, how she will communicate and who she decides to fall in love with. This is not only a book for women but men need to understand why women are not just male brains in a female body. Daniel Goleman emphasizes this point when he says, "Louann Brizendine has done a great favor for every man who wants to understand the puzzling women in his life. A breezy and enlightening guide to women — and a must-read for men."

To those people who would rather believe that the real differences between men and women are minor, Dr. Brizendine offers some interesting tidbits. Some of these may ring a bell with you. Women are good at remembering fights with their mates that are totally forgotten by the male. Talk about communication — men typically use about 7,000 words each day while women use almost three times as many (20,000). There is also an enormous gap between how often men and women think about sex — women think about it every couple days while the thought enters a man’s brain about once every minute. Women are highly tuned to the feelings of others. Men are also aware of feelings but only if someone cries or if they are physically threatened.

The Female Brain covers the life cycle of women from conception to after menopause. Dr. Brizendine names these cycles fetal, girlhood, puberty, sexual maturity/single woman, pregnancy, breast feeding, child rearing, perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause. In each of these phases she explains the hormonal changes, specific brain changes, and how reality changes as women move from phase to phase.

Woman’s intuition is real in the sense that women have brain circuits wired for decoding the smallest detail in other people’s reactions. To the dismay and confusion of men, women’s brains are expert at determining emotional nuances. The brain can automatically interpret facial expressions and find meaning in a person’s tone of voice. Research has shown that men are not that good at picking up on emotional nuances. Is this why women are so adept at being psychics? What they do is not supernatural but their success is completely understandable when we comprehend how the female brain works.

Many of my therapy clients tell me about being frustrated in trying to tell males how they feel. When I ask them to give me an example of what they say exactly, it comes across as vague, like a hint. I explain that men’s brains don’t do well at decoding hints. Women who have a lot of girlfriends are surprised to hear this because hinting works so well with their women friends. Then I give my client an example of what they could say to make a male brain hear and understand their message. My example is often met with surprise and disbelief because it seems so obvious. The next step for them is to learn how to talk "male" talk if they really want to get a man to hear them. It’s the opposite for men — I have to teach them "female" talk which is a much harder task.

Because of this male-female emotional disconnect, women are often disappointed when they "expect" men to respond like their women friends. When they don’t get the response they expect they will continue to send out subtle signals (for hours if need be) until there is an explosion. Either she will break down and cry or exhibit some other emotional response. Before this happens, the male may begin to complain about nagging.

For years, people thought these differences were the result of cultural influences and the dissimilar ways we raise boys and girls. Recent research shows these differences with newborns. Day old girls are more responsive to human faces and the crying of other newborns much more than baby boy. Little girls, only a year old, are much better at responding to sadness. This doesn’t change much with age. Another study found that adult women can identify faint signs of sadness in others nine times out of ten while men can only do this four times out of ten. Women are more than twice at good at this skill than men.

Men tend to do things they are good at; since we don’t do the emotional piece very well, we avoid emotionally charged situations when we can. When we go through difficult times, we often process our emotional pain by ourselves. We are puzzled that women don’t do the same and then want and expect the comfort of as many friends as possible for as long as possible.

Some women have objected to this emphasis on gender differences because it can be the basis for hurtful and unfair discrimination. The research that Dr. Brizendine and others are doing is showing that differences are a biological reality. Women need not be afraid of these differences.

But pretending that women and men are the same, while doing a disservice to both men and women, ultimately hurts women. Perpetuating the myth of the male norm means ignoring women’s real, biological differences in severity, susceptibility, and treatment of disease. It also ignores the different ways that they process thoughts and therefore perceive what is important.
I have covered a very small fraction of the information in this book. I hope you can get a copy and read this most important book to fill in the large gaps left by this short article.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Anonymity and Faith

I have received several comments regarding the January 20 post about the inauguration of our new president. Sadly, after the first post, I have decided to not accept the rest of the comments because they have all been anonymous. I gladly accept dissenting views but am disheartened when people try to hide their opinions behind a screen of invisibility. One person accused me of breaking down communication by the opinions I was expressing. Communication is only broken two ways. The first is when individuals believe that their perception of the world is the only acceptable one, the other is when they fail to identify who they are. We can only communicate with real human beings who are ready to listen and exchange viewpoints without the agenda that "I am right and you are wrong."

Some of the more acerbic feedback was the assumption that Christians are not allowed to disagree with one another — especially about homosexuality. In fact, there are many devout Christians who do not believe the Bible rejects homosexuality even though, on the surface, it appears that the Bible denigrates homosexuality. Many pious Christians believe that a more rigorous Biblical study of this issue can lead to the opposite conclusion.

To say that Christians who support homosexuality are not truly Christian is to get trapped into simplistic theology. After all, Jesus never addressed the issue. Even the Apostle Paul in all his letters said that the only criterion for being a Christian is to believe in Jesus and his resurrection. He attached no strings to this message. Historically, Christian power brokers began adding other tests for being a "true Christian." Eventually, one had to believe in the Trinity, then in the Virgin Mary, transubstantiation, Papal infallibility, etc. In more modern times a Christian had to believe in the Biblical support for slavery and the subjugation of women. I remember as a child that real Christians did not drink alcohol, smoke, play cards, dance, or go to movies. How times have changed. All these former ideas were vigorously and often violently defended as proof of Christian citizenship.

Is it possible many Christians are basically Biblically illiterate? It is a fact that few Christians even read the entire Bible any more, let alone study it rigorously. Recent studies have shown that only 33% of conservative Christians actually read the Bible and only 12% read it daily. Evangelical scholar Mark Noll in his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, is saddened that conservative Christians have become so anti-intellectual. This is ironic because Evangelicalism began during the Great Awakening as a way of combining reason and faith to better understand the Bible. Regrettably, many Christians are ignorant of Church history and how Christianity continues to change and evolve over time. By rejecting the very notion that they might be wrong in how they interpret the Bible, some Christians read the Bible in order to support their own biases and prejudices. Then they turn around and try to convince people that this is not the case.

So where are the majority of Christians getting their understanding of what the Bible says? My experience is they get their beliefs from other people most of whom are authority figures such as pastors, writers, media celebrities and web sites. I’ve observed that most Christians accept much of what they hear from these sources without hesitation. I suspect this also occurred a hundred years ago when so many Christians truly believed the Bible was absolute in its support of demeaning the humanity of certain people by making them slaves. Jesus never would have tolerated enslaving other people for our own benefit and neither would many Christians today. Slavery is unthinkable to Christians today, yet it was supported by preachers who quoted the Bible in support of slavery.

Back to homosexuality. I don’t understand on what basis Christians get to pick and choose what they want to believe. If the Bible must be treated literally, then the game must be played as all or nothing. Those who use the Bible to condemn homosexuality like to use passages from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. This section of the Bible contains what is called the Holiness Code, namely a collection of laws telling the people of the Old Testament how to maintain their relationship with God.

So here is my question? If this one command, homosexuality, is accepted as a standard of living, why not all the others? It seems arrogant to assume that any human being has the right to tell God that they will only obey certain parts of the Holiness Code and not others. Okay, so we condemn homosexuality. Why then don't Christians believe they should only marry Jewish people; insist that farmers cannot plant two different kinds of grain in the same field; never wear a garment made of two different materials; demand male gender superiority (like the Taliban); put to death any child who curses their parents. There is more. In the long list of hundreds of commands, some Christians decide that the homosexuality prohibition is the only one they want to accept.

Let’s continue. Many Christians put more priority on the New Testament over the Old Testament. They will say the reason they pick out this Old Testament prohibition regarding homosexuality is because 1 Corinthians (6:9-17) and 1 Timothy (1:3-13) back up the Old Testament. Remember that our English Bibles are translations of a language from long ago. It is not easy translating from Koiné Greek to English (or any other language, for that matter). The two words often translated that supposedly refer to homosexuality is in dispute among Bible scholars. I don’t have the time nor the space to even summarize these scholarly debates here but the information is available to anyone who cares to seek it out.

There is no question that homosexuals are marginalized people in today’s society. Ironically, marginalized people are the very people Jesus chose to hang out with. This behavior shocked the more devout religious people of his day just as people who follow Jesus today and accept homosexual people shock some religious people. Jesus was all about tolerance, acceptance and loving our enemies. Why are these qualities so absent in our dialogue with one another? Paul tried to deal with differences by simply saying that in God’s eyes there were no differences. The tide is beginning to turn, by the way. Surveys are showing that more young Evangelical Christians are accepting homosexuals as fully equal with all other people.

Christianity is not monolithic — namely not all people who call themselves Christian are going to agree even on the "basics." If the Bible were that clear about what to believe, there would not be so many different types of churches some of whom think they are the "true" church.

We advance our knowledge and beliefs by continuing to dialogue with one another — which is basically listening nonjudgmentally to those who disagree with us. So, please keep your comments coming but don’t hide behind anonymity. Let us know who you are so that together we can improve all our lives as we continue together on our life journey.

If you prefer to contact me directly instead of leaving a public comment, please feel free to do so.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Q & A #1

Q: Why did you decide to write The Worry Free Life?
A: As we described in the beginning of the book, we had used the material for several years in a large church in Placerville, California. The number of people interested in the classes overwhelmed all expectations from the very first class. We saw lives turned around: people with depression able to return to a normal life; mothers and daughters reconciling and reestablishing a loving connection; estranged couples who were able to communicate in a more healthy style and recommit their love for each other. By the second year of classes, we realized that this material was too valuable to be kept in California. As word has spread about the power of the skills we teach, more people now have access to fulfilling their need for the abundant life. You can read some comments from others here.

Q: Dr. Sandbek, have you written any other self-help books?
A. Yes, The Deadly Diet was my first book and was published about two decades ago. It has gone through a second edition and I am working on updating it to a third edition (although the second edition is still available on Amazon). It is a self-help manual for people who have eating disorders. This would include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating.

Q: When I read about the "Voice" in your book, it made me uneasy. Why is that?
A. This is a comment I have heard from some of my clients. They have told me that if they admitted they heard a voice talking to them, someone might lock them up in a mental hospital. The use of the Voice in our book is a metaphor for negative thinking. It has nothing to do with hallucinations or "hearing voices." This concept of the Voice is a way to externalize your negative thoughts so as not to have to take responsibility for them. By giving all your negativity to the imaginary Voice, you are left with owning only your own healthy thoughts. As I tell my therapy clients, "you are not responsible for having the Voice, you are only responsible for learning how to get rid of it."

Q: How can you say that shame is a healthy emotion when everyone else says it is so destructive?
A. There is a lot of confusion about what shame is. Many people think it is just another version of guilt. The dictionary defines shame as the emotion felt when one has violated community standards. Remorse is the emotion one feels after violating one’s own internal standards. Both of these emotions are normal and natural merely because we are imperfect creatures in an imperfect world. As The Worry Free Life explains, these healthy (but painful) emotions can drive us to take action to repair the damage. Shame naturally leads us to ask for forgiveness from others and maybe doing something to correct any damage. On the other hand, remorse can push us to forgive ourselves for being human. Guilt is totally different in that it gets us to punish ourselves. This can become a vicious cycle because when we punish ourselves we make another mistake which makes us feel even more guilty followed by more self punishment. Some people have been trapped in this cycle for years. By learning to deal effectively with the Voice, you can banish guilt from your life and let shame and remorse be effective, painful emotions leading to corrective action.

Q: The Worry Free Life seems so different from other self help books but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Can you explain this for me?
A. The Worry Free Life is different from most self books because it teaches the reader how to improve his or her life instead of telling what to do. My professional experience with others has taught me that most people know what they ought to be doing with their life but don’t have the necessary skills to reach their goals. Teaching skills and personal tools is unusual for self help books — although this has been improving in recent years. Most self help books are designed to make us feel better and this is something we all want. Unfortunately, this affect can wear off quickly. My goal in writing this book is not to feed you but to show you how to feed yourself. I tell my therapy clients during our first visit that my job is to work myself out of a job. My experience has been that after a person has read some of the more helpful self help books and felt committed to a life change The Worry Free Life can take them to the next level of life.

Q: I’m in a church that is always looking for new material for small groups. I loved your book but am wondering how to go about getting this book into our program. Any ideas?
A. There are several things you can do. First, talk with everyone you know in your church about how the book has helped you change your life. Tell your story to the pastoral staff and explain that you want to share this good news with the rest of your church. If your church has a life skills or small group staff person, set up an appointment to talk to this person about a Worry Free Life small group. There is a Study Guide that was designed to be used for small groups so if you don’t have it you may want to look at a copy and share it with the people you talk to. It is okay if you start small with as few as 4-5 people. Some people are more comfortable starting a small group as an all men’s group or an all women’s group. If you must, you can also start the group yourself. If this in an option, please contact me personally and I can offer you suggestions and advice to get you going.

Q: Your book has had a tremendous impact on my life and I would like to share it with a friend who is not interested in religion. What should I do?
A. This is a common question. The book was originally written to target the church market because we saw an absence of books on the order of The Worry Free Life. Many people who have no need for religion in their life have read and used The Worry Free Life by merely ignoring the context (religion) of the skills training. One of my goals in the near future is to make a secular version of this book available to the general public.

Q: I have such a hard time thinking that my thoughts belong to the Voice. These are really my thoughts and to pretend they are not seems phony. Do I have to use the Voice concept to use the skills in the book?
A. A few of the people I have worked with have had the very same thoughts you have just expressed. The reason I developed the Voice technique years ago was as a result of a comment from a client I was working with. We had been using the standard cognitive therapy procedures and it was going slowly. When we talked about what was impeding her progress, she told me, "Dr. Sandbek, you are expecting me to use my mind that is full of worry to actually get rid of the worry in my mind." She felt like she had been set up to run in circles. What she said made sense. As I was pondering during the following week about what she said, another therapy client of mine was having a tough week. In describing to me the trouble she was having she blurted out, "Dr. Sandbek, there is a voice in my head." I had an epiphany. The two concepts made the proverbial light bulb go off in my head. As I explored the idea of externalizing negative thoughts with my other clients, I found they liked the idea and therapy became much easier for many of them. Of course, not everyone resonates with the concept of the Voice. If you are in this group, you can just ignore the Voice strategy and substitute "worry" for the Voice. By changing the language a bit, you might be able to still use these skills and techniques successfully.

Q: Sometimes when I’m feeling really self destructive, it is hard not to believe what I’m telling myself, namely that I deserve not to live any more. How can I not believe what I really believe?
A. I remember years ago working in a mental hospital and having a patient tell me that she "really wanted" to kill herself. Fortunately, she had be taking the daily cognitive therapy classes in the hospital. I reminded her that she didn’t really want to die, rather her Voice wanted her to believe she wanted to die. As we talked she realized this was true and she had been believing a lie. As she calmed down, she knew deep down that she wanted to live but the Voice had spent so much time convincing her otherwise that she had come to believe it. She spent the next hour in her room doing written Voice Fighting. The rest of the staff were surprised, but happy, that she was able to turn herself around so quickly. Your Voice wants to do the same thing for you. Sometimes the hardest part of changing your thinking is to separate yourself from the Voice. Once this step becomes easier for you, the rest of the skills will fall into place. Keep up with your writing and put all your "negative" thoughts on paper making sure you ascribe them to the Voice. As the book tells you, "don’t forget to watch your pronouns."

Q: Why are there only six destructive emotions and not five or seven?
A. That’s a good question. I don’t think there is any good reason why there are only six. I don’t even know of any research that says there should only be six. The best I can tell you is that after thirty years of working as a psychologist, these are the only ones I have found. I suppose there could be more, but these six destructive emotions seem to be at the heart of our difficulties as human beings. Psychologists tend to call these six destructive emotions "core emotions" and the Voice language behind them "mental schemas."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

We are so fortunate to be able to personally witness this day that will end up in history books centuries from now. This day is momentous on so many dimensions. We are finally being told by our new President that we are one nation with one purpose for one people. Divisions have divided our country for too long. We have had a decade of bickering and polarized ideology undergirded with fear.

If our nation were a family, psychologists would look upon us as a highly dysfunctional family. We have been encouraged to take sides and demonize those who disagree with us. We tryed to expel family members whose opinions differ from ours. We have believed that we are so weak that we need the strong hand of government to tell us what to think and believe. We were supposed to accept with reservation any outrageous policy or idea put before us. Fighting and quarreling among us has reduced us, as a nation family, to our lowest common human denominator.

Highly effective families have problems and tensions just because all people are different — even those who are genetically similar. Families who do well listen to one another and encourage disagreement and different points of view. However, underneath all the emotional maneuvering is an underlying sense that inclusiveness trumps fear and judgment.

Becoming a healthy national family will not be easy. From eons of development, the human brain has learned that fear can be a powerful survival mechanism. The attack on 9/11 instilled a fear in the nation that few had yet experienced. Our survival mechanism began to determine who we were and we began to splinter as a nation.

Harnessing fear by knowing the difference between rational and irrational fear is one of the hallmarks of emotional stability. Dysfunctional families and nations begin to fall apart when they let fear be the guiding principle for action.

Our nation has had many fears from our very beginning. One of the rational fears that exploded into the drive for independence was our fear of being a world empire vassal. The Enlightenment, more than any other concept, drove our founders to respect the dignity of each individual and the importance of freedom from tyranny by others.

As we became a nation, irrational fears began to be added to our original rational fear of dominance by a nation that did not have our best interests at heart. The early colonies began to experience and display fear of anyone who had a different religious viewpoint. Some Christians think that only one religion (conservative Christianity) settled on our shores. Actually, many different religions came here in order to be free to practice their religion: Quakers, Dutch reformers, Puritans, Anglicans, Catholics, German reformers to name a few.

The irony of this drive for religious freedom was that each religion only wanted freedom for themselves and were highly intolerant of anyone else's religion. Religious freedom had a different meaning to the colonists than it does to us today. Our nation now believes all religions (including atheists) are free to hold and express these beliefs without interference from others. The original settlers only wanted freedom for themselves and no one else.

This can be illustrated by the Maryland Act of Religious Toleration of 1649. This "enlightened" policy offered religious toleration, but only to those whose religion subscribed to a dogma called Christian Trinitarianism. The Act was tolerant of any religion that subscribed to this ideology. Nevertheless, it also excluded many religions such Jews and other non-European religions. The reasonable consequence for violating this act (reasonable only to the signers of the MART) was death to everyone who was not a Trinitarian. This makes us cringe today. Even though this would be highly unconstitutional today, there are those on the ideological fringes of our current society who would not mind reinstating this kind of prohibition.

As we struggled with the principle of religious inclusiveness, we added another irrational fear to our collective psyche, slavery. Many people in our country were afraid of anyone with skin coloration including Native Americans. As early as 1619 we believed that people of color were to be used and treated as animals.

Our first irrational fear, religious toleration, spilled over into this fear of skin color. People who condoned slavery used religion to justify its existence. A Reverend Alexander Campbell, with a straight face and absolute conviction said, "There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral."

Supporting this religious bigotry were many politicians. James Henry Hammond, US Senator in the middle of the 19th century, also used the Bible to declare that "The doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants. The hand of fate has united his color and destiny. Man cannot separate what God hath joined." Everyone who supported slavery believed that the Bible sanctioned it. The Bible taught, we were told, that slave owners were permitted to severely beat their slaves even if doing so killed them. In other words, the holy book condoned all aspects of slavery and the treatment of "Negroes" as property.

As if this were not bad enough. Women were also seen as male property. Gender inequality was strongly supported by, you guessed it, the Bible. Those who came to this country supposedly for religious freedom used their religious beliefs to dehumanize over half the population. The Bible continued to be used to promote personal irrational fears. The underlying fear was that the "other" would somehow undermine the convenient lifestyle of society's barons.

Today we not only have our first African-American president. He is supported by female politicians at every level of society. Women permeate professions that were off limits to them only a few decades ago. Women make up the majority of students in many graduate schools. The message of hope that Barack Obama used for his campaign is meant to help us all dispel remnants of those remaining fears that inhibit our national family from becoming healthy and functional. We have been told that the barriers dividing us are coming down. Divisions based on irrational fear can no longer be tolerated.

In his short speech in Baltimore prior to his final stop in Washington, D.C., Mr. Obama named some of the barriers that must be broken including those between heterosexuals and homosexuals. Sexuality has been our slavery/gender issue far too long.

Some religious people (fortunately a minority) have continued to use the Bible to justify their own homophobic fears. The vision that President Obama has given to we ordinary Americans is that we must do our best to be a productive and stable family. We need to learn out to communicate more effectively, live with our differences, support one another who cause us pain, and become a nation that shows the rest of the world what possibilities exist for everyone.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Some of us have great memories while others of us forget more than we remember. After we reach 40, we begin to wonder why it becomes so much harder to remember where we put the car keys. Is it early onset Alzheimer's or are we slipping toward dementia? As we're beginning to learn this is normal as we age.

But what is memory? Many of us think memory is like a photograph or a recording somewhere in our brain. If only we could find that one place then we could remember what we wanted to remember. Research has shown us that memory is much more complicated than this. Memory is also different from perception because memory deals with events in our past.

Our memory process involves three steps. The first step is called the encoding step because it involves the intake of information and possibly creates what is called a memory trace. This is followed by the storage step. Our brain needs to place the information somewhere so that it can be maintained over time. When we want to recall a piece of information, the brain is involved in the last step called retrieval because we attempt to access the memory traces scattered throughout our brain.

This can sound like a daunting task. Our brain has about 100 billion brain cells. These cells work by being interconnected with many other cells. As they pass on information to these other cells, the number of pathways is astronomical. Amid all this interconnectedness, there is no one place where memory exists. Memory, we have discovered, is scattered throughout many different sites in our brain.

For example, say your brain encodes and stores a memory about a lunch you had with a friend. The memory of who your friend is goes one place for storage, the location of your lunch goes somewhere else. What you ate and the time of day are both stored in different locations in your brain. During the lunch, sights, sounds, smells, tastes are all distributed in separate parts of your brain. To retrieve this information, your hippocampus has to rummage through all these different areas of you brain to put together the memory of "your lunch." Where are these other places?

Although the hippocampus is considered the memory control center, many other parts of the brain are also involved in memory. Memories are distributed among such places as the cerebellum, cerebral cortex, amygdala and striatum. These different parts of the brain have different functions regarding your memory but they also affect each other.

To make things even more complicated, scientists now talk about different kinds of memory. You are probably familiar with the terms "long term" and "short term" memory. Short term memory is often referred to as our "working memory" because it generally lasts about thirty seconds and deals with about seven pieces of information at a time. If we repetitively concentrate on these items in short term memory, it is more likely they will eventually be transferred to long term memory storage.

Long term memory is where we permanently store information. Theoretically, it has an unlimited capacity. Psychologists have found that there are different types of long term memory. Each of these types has a different purpose.

One type is called procedural memory. This type of memory deals with "how" we do things and our skills involving motor patterns. Another is called declarative memory. We use this type of memory when we remember information or knowledge about our world. Examples of declarative memory would be remembering someone's name or when to attend a class you signed up for. Procedural memory would be used for remembering how to play the trombone, fix a table lamp or perform specific movements in aikido.

Declarative memory (remembering information) can be subdivided into episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memory remembers things that have a specific anchor in our past. We know where information came from and maybe the circumstances surrounding its origin. On the other hand, semantic memory is also about knowledge and information but we don't know where the information came from or when we might have learned it.

In 1987 a psychologist by the name of Daniel Schacter at Harvard, identified two other types of memory: explicit memory and implicit memory. He had been studying different types of memory tasks and found that some tasks were very active in recalling information. The person using this type of memory knows and is aware of what is being remembered. He called this explicit memory.

Implicit memory is a bit more difficult to explain. Essentially this memory type also recalls past experiences or information but during this recall, we are not consciously aware of these previous experiences. In a sense, procedural memory is a form of implicit memory. People continually use implicit, procedural memory. You know how to drive your care without having to consciously think about how to do it or remember when and how you learned to do it.

With all these different memory types in the brain and locations where memory is stored, it is now easy to see that our memories are not stored as in a video camera. When we want or need to retrieve a memory, the brain begins searching for these pieces and tries to put them together into a meaningful whole.

You have probably had the experience of trying to remember something like a person's name. You recognize the face, where you've seen the person before, any emotion attached to it, but still have to say, "the name is on the tip of my tongue." When this happens, your brain is searching for that missing piece but is unable to find it. We keep trying to come up with the name and often find that it pops into our head when we have given up trying to remember it.

Our brain, then, constructs memories of past information like trying to find the pieces of a puzzle. Sometimes, when our brain cannot find the missing piece, it will get another piece that is similar but not accurate. Many of us have talked about a childhood event with a parent only to have them say, "but that's not how it happened at all." This frustrates us because we "know" that our memory of the event is the way it really happened.

This is why it is so easy to get into an active argument with someone about what "really" happened in the past that both people were a part of. Each person is absolutely convinced he or she is correct and the other person has to be wrong.

As if this were not bad enough. Elizabeth Loftus, a highly respected psychologist who specializes in memory research, has found that our memories can be manipulated by how our external cues are arranged. In a famous experiment she showed a video clip of a car lightly hitting another car. After watching the clip half the people were asked to estimate how fast the car had been moving when it "smashed" into the other car. The other half of the group were asked how fast the car had been moving when it "bumped" the other car.

The people in the "smashed" group guessed that the car was traveling much faster than the speed estimated by the second "bumped" group. Merely by asking the question with a single different word – smashed vs. bumped – was enough to influence the memories of people in the first group.

Because your memory is an active process, it uses a variety of strategies to retrieve information. It can and often will fill in the missing elements without your permission. As memory research continues, we will probably find even more surprises awaiting us.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Psychology and the Brain

Several of you have written to me and asked for some articles on neuroscience. Well, actually you didn't used that word but you said you were interested in topics on the brain and memory. Although I am not trained as a neuropsychologist, I'm fascinated by the topic. It is also one of the hottest fields in psychology today.

Psychologists studying the brain are some of the most original thinkers in the science of human behavior. The human brain is the most complicated organ in our body. Even though computers have become better at chess than the greatest human players, some of the tasks human children taken for granted and do quite simply are beyond the skill of the most powerful computers.

In addition to what psychologists discover about the brain, I am amazed and have profound admiration for psychologists who find out how the brain works. The "how" in science is called "experimental design." The tenets of designing a good experiment are quite simple and used by all competent scientists in all fields of inquiry.

Designing a good psychology experiment includes comparing the subjects of the experiment with a control group, making certain that the subjects are randomly chosen and using what is referred to as the gold standard, the "double blind" study. This means that neither the subjects nor the experimenters really know who is doing what until the study is finished. Different procedures and the subjects are coded in order to eliminate what is called "experimenter bias." This is the basic outline of a research design; the details are much more complex.

Often when I hear about some research, I often wonder how they do it? For example a psychologist, Dr. Alexandra Lamont in the United Kingdom, determined that 1-yr old babies preferred music that they heard in the womb a year before they were born. Now, you might ask yourself the same question I did. How do we know if a 1-year old prefers one thing to another. It certainly would not do to ask the infant, "which music do you prefer?"

A group of pregnant women were selected to participate in this study. Each mother played a certain kind of music repeatedly during the final three months of gestation. (The auditory system of the fetus is fully functioning about this time). One group of mothers played classical music, another group played Top 40, the third group world played reggae, while the fourth group of mothers played world beat. Each group of unborn babies heard their music over and over.

After birth, the mothers were not allowed to play these songs to their children for one year. At the end of this year the experiment was begun. Dr. Lamont played two pieces of music to each of these four groups of children. Each group of children heard the music that had been repetitively played a year earlier plus other music that matched the womb music in tempo and style. In other words, Dr. Lamont wondered if the children would prefer the music their mothers played instead of something kind of like it.

Here is where it becomes easy to admire the ingenuity of scientists. Before reading on, stop and think for a few minutes how you would have figured out which type of music the child preferred. Did the first group like the classical music better than something sort of like classical music? Were the preferences similar in the other three groups?

Okay, here is what she did. Each infant sat on the mother's lap with two speakers on either side of the child. One speaker would play the music from a year ago, the other speaker would play the similar music. But this still leaves the question open – how would this help to discover which music the babies preferred.

No music came from either speaker until the baby turned its head in the direction of the speaker. Babies are curious and wiggly. When the baby turned left, the left speaker came on; when the baby turned to the right, the right speaker played its music. Eventually, the baby's brain realized that it could turn different music on or off by turning in a specific direction. What Dr. Lamont found is that preference was determined by how much time the baby spent facing in one direction. How clever.

Now, Dr. Lamont didn't invent this procedure. It was already well known by other researchers who studied infant behavior and is called the "infant head turning procedure" (catchy name). The study found that all the infants looked longer at the music that was coming from the speaker that played the music they heard prior to birth.

Dr. Lamont, being the excellent researcher that she was, used a control group of children. These children had not had the same music played to them prenatally. The same experiment was done with them, but it is was found the babies had no preference for any particular style of music.

As a postscript, some of you may be familiar with what is called the "Mozart Effect." When the media got a hold of this study they concluded that babies who listened to Mozart would become smarter than if they did not listen to it. Cottage industries sprang up selling and promoting CDs and programs for "making kids smarter."

Unfortunately, Dr. Lamont's study never came to this conclusion and further studies showed that listening to Mozart – or any other music – did not increase intelligence. Unsurprisingly, the Mozart myth lingers to this day for unsuspecting parents.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Your Comfort Zone

We all have a sense of what makes us uncomfortable. Things that make us comfortable are generally within our comfort zone and everything else is outside. This means we gravitate towards events, people, places inside our comfort zone and tend to avoid things outside our comfort zone.

Your comfort zone might include certain people like friends or neighbors, types of movies, books, or music and specific forms of information. When we are outside our comfort zone we want to get back quickly. When are inside, we don't want to leave.

There is a lot of variation among people. For some, their family is right in the middle of their comfort zone while others have families that remain light-years away from their comfort zone. Some people look forward to going to work because of the people they work with. Others may dread contact with only one person at work who makes them extremely uncomfortable. They will do everything in their power to avoid this person. If they pull this off, then the work day was pleasant; if not, the one person can ruin an entire workday.

Books, like the classic Catcher in the Rye, remain firmly in some people's comfort zone while others find it so disagreeable they don't anyone to read it and want to ban its existence. For some, acid rock is within their comfort zone while opera makes them nervous. There are others who find the reverse of this in their lives. Action movies sell well so they must be within the comfort zone of many people. Nevertheless, there are others who would rather be thrown into a pit of rabid rabbits than watch this type of movie.

I think you get the picture. The enormous amount of variability is due to many factors such as age, cultural upbringing, gender, personal values. Some people enjoy talking about politics, religion or sex while others feel extremely uncomfortable with some of these subjects.

Comfort zones come in a variety of sizes. These sizes can expand or contract with time. Their size can be strongly influenced by our brain chemistry. For example, people who experience panic attacks can live in a very small world where a comfort zone is often narrowly defined. Any movement toward the boundaries of the comfort zone can trigger a panic attack which is caused by an immediate and excessive surge or adrenaline.

Habits can make the boundaries of comfort zones very strong and impermeable. Brain cells are tightly connected for the habits in our lives and it often takes specialized techniques to weaken and disentangle them. Breaking habits can be one of the most difficult behaviors we face. If the habit of staying within the comfort zone is very strong, people will do almost anything to not leave.

Leaving the comfort zone often means taking a risk. Some people's brains are hard-wired for taking risks — they have huge comfort zones. Others, with small zones, are risk-aversive. It is hard to remember, sometimes, that taking healthy risks is about life itself. Life is about change and growth and without these processes, we live as humans incapable of reaching our full potential and experiencing the wonder and awe of what life has to offer. This has been wonderfully summed up in a poem by William Arthur Ward called "To Risk."

To laugh is to risk appearing a fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement,
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure.

But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. People who risk nothing, do nothing, have nothing, are nothing. They may avoid suffering and sorrow, But they cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live. Chained by their servitude they slaves who have forfeited all freedom. Only a person who risks is free.

The pessimist complains about the wind; The optimist expects it
to change; And the realist adjusts the sails.

Discomfort is meant to teach us something important, namely that something is wrong with us. Physical discomfort means we need to take action to make something better. If we break a bone in our leg, the pain is telling us that we could live a better life by doing something to help the leg heal.

Emotional discomfort that we feel when we leave our comfort zone has the same purpose. Our brain does not like pain and tries to get rid of it as quickly as possible. The best way to get rid of the pain from a broken leg is to take enough medication so that we can no longer feel the pain. As we all know, this short term solution may not be in our best interests.

When we leave our comfort zone, the quickest way to get rid of the discomfort is to quickly run back to our comfort zone as soon as possible. This short term solution will keep us trapped in our never expanding life. Pain outside our emotional boundaries is intended to push our boundaries in order to grow.

Think of a boundary that keeps you locked into running your life the same way you always have. Maybe you have difficulty talking to a friendly stranger on an airplane or in a store. Or you may be frightened when people around you start talking about politics or a religion that is different than yours. Perhaps, you might find it difficult to confront people when they mistreat you. There are many examples that illustrate the things that keep us from growing.

This week, think of something you could work on this year to open a new part of life for you. Ponder this, read about it, talk to a friend and then take some small risks in the direction that will eventually push you outside your comfort zone.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Start of A New Year

I want to thank all of you for being so patient during this six-week break in my blog. My wife is finally healing well from her surgery and I appreciate all of you who sent your condolences.

This first blog will be somewhat short because I want to share some of my thoughts with you about the new year. I’m still interested in doing some book reviews and interviews with people in the field. I had an odd experience a few months again soon after beginning this blog. A book I was interested in was written by a local psychologist. When I contacted him by email and told what I wanted to do, he wrote back and asked about how I used some of the ideas in his book in my private practice.

I spelled it out carefully for him emphasizing some of the scientific foundations for how I do therapy. Here is the strange part – I never heard back from him. When I wrote him a month later to inquire if he had gotten my email, he wrote a lame reply that basically said he wasn’t interested. This is strange because most authors I know who don’t have a best-selling book are eager to get the word out about their work. This is why we haven’t had a book review yet.

Okay, so we started slowly. I’ll continue looking for book authors that have made significant contributions in psychology that are useful for the average person. I’m looking at several books currently so should have a report to you soon.

Many of you during the last few months have written me questions about The Worry Free Life and psychology in general. Please keep your questions coming as I collect them for a potential Q&A article. Feel free to ask me anything about psychology, mental health, human nature or anything related. If I don’t have an answer, I will find it for you.

Additionally, you can send me, as some of you have, suggestions for future articles. I have quite a few in the queue for future articles but will enjoy any additional input you can give me. If you have any friends who would like to receive this blog, please tell them about it so they, too, can become a part of The Worry Free Life community.

Stay tuned for some exciting news. The website is being redesigned so that we can integrate it into this blog. It should be ready to go in a few weeks. Near the end of the week, you will be getting a blog about personal comfort zones