Cognition & Reality

Friday, 30 July 2010

Amores Perros

Filed under: Film,Rumi — drtone @ 1:01 pm

I realize that Rumi is now all the rage, but that does not make him any less great.

Some years ago, I went with my wife at the time to a wonderfully funky little movie theater in Mesilla, NM, run in part by an old friend of hers and the friend’s husband. We went to see a Mexican film that had created quite a stir, “Amores Perros,” by Alejandro González Iñárritu. It’s a rough, engaging story, revolving in part around dog-fighting, but also around other real and figurative dogs in Mexico City. I did not know until years later that the title was a reference to a poem by Rumi:

Love Dogs
Rumi

One night a man was crying Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with praising,
until a cynic said, “So!
I’ve heard you calling our, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.

“Why did you stop praising?” “Because
I’ve never heard anything back.”

“This longing you express
is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

Go here for a wonderful reading of this great poem.

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Thursday, 29 July 2010

A Modern Prometheus

Filed under: Film — drtone @ 8:48 am
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Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, A Modern Prometheus, is perhaps the most influential work of fiction in English or any language. Let us distinguish “influential” from “great.” Jane Austen’s novels, written at about the same time, the second decade of the nineteenth century, are vastly superior works in literary style and merit. Nevertheless, Frankenstein produced ripples that transcend the literary and continue to be powerful today, far surpassing the social and cultural impact of other works of fiction written before or since, rendering it without parallel in any other art form. Almost two hundred years after its publication in 1818, its title remains a household word, even among those who have no idea of the novel’s existence.

Every six-year-old is aware of “Frankenstein,” the model for all subsequent monsters. Most of those who know the name  do not realize that it was given by Shelly to the monster’s creator, Victor Frankenstein, rather than to the monster himself. Nevertheless, the work’s content is so powerful that it continues to expand in the popular imagination long after coming unmoored from its origins in the mind of a teenage girl living among the literati.

It is practically impossible to imagine the popular culture of our time without Frankenstein’s monster. The image of the monster, as played by Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 eponymous film, continues to hang on millions of walls and to reverberate within billions of minds. Because it explicitly represents the dark side of industrialization and scientific achievement, rapidly proliferating in Shelly’s time, the monster created by Victor Frankenstein has come to represent every negative aspect of human society in the modern world, from overcrowding to gridlock to global warming. There is hardly an unintended negative consequence of attempts to improve the world that has not been called “a Frankenstein.”

So thoroughly has the Frankenstein story seeped into our society and culture, that we take its terms for granted, obviating any need for explication. In particular, the monster is especially prominent in films far outside the horror and science fiction genres. Some movies make explicit reference to Shelly’s ideas, not only the numerous “Frankenstein” films, from Whale’s sequel “The Bride of Frankenstein,” to Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein,” but also many ostensibly unrelated science fiction films, such as “Blade Runner” and “Terminator.”  The CIA, designed by intellectuals as a benign protector of freedom, but ineluctably transformed into a menace, often appears as “a Frankenstein.” In “Three Days of the Condor,” for example, the “Company,” represented by Max von Sydow as an brilliant, amoral, unstoppable hit man, is a monster arbitrarily and mechanically destroying any threat to its power.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

…The More They Stay The Same

Filed under: Behavioral Genetics,Diagnosis — drtone @ 10:10 am

Mental illness–or whatever you want to call it–would be stigmatized in any case: No one wants to be around disturbing behavior. A large part of the stigma, however, revolved around the issue of marriage. Throughout most of history, a young person with “insanity” in the family could not marry because it was assumed that the disorder afflicting his or her relative could be inherited. As psychiatry developed in the nineteenth century, and particularly after it assimilated Freud’s ideas, it erected a different standard in direct opposition to the idea that insanity is inherited, which was perceived as outmoded.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the prevailing view once again became that insanity is inherited, except that a new word was used. Mental illness was designated as “genetic.” With its reference to the exploding science of genetics, this new label acquired enormous power. Never mind that, despite efforts to brush away the evidence emerging now that methods are available for identifying the constituents of an individual’s genome, the genes involved have not been identified and remain unknown. In response to the disappointing findings of large-scale genomic surveys, one researcher commented, “Schizophrenia could well be more complicated than other medical disorders.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Occam’s Razor Cuts Deep

Filed under: Uncategorized — drtone @ 8:20 am
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I have in front of me an April 2008 editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry regarding the failure of Sanders, et al. to validate any of 14 “candidate genes” for schizophrenia. The editorial says it all: ” The simplest explanation is that for the broadly recruited cases and comparison subjects used in this study, common DNA variation in these genes is just not correlated with the schizophrenia phenotype, as defined by the investigators.”Several highly respected European and American researchers examined the relationship of  variants of 14 genes suspected of causing schizophrenia and found no significant relationship between the presence of these variants and the presence of schizophrenia or of presumably related disorders. The editorial, while not denying the results, attempts to explain them in a way that is consistent with maintaining the “known” genetic cause of schizophrenia.

The various approaches outlined in the editorial serve only to underline the problem. Applying the criterion known in science as Occam’s Razor, if the statistical power of studies with literally thousands of subjects is insufficient to detect an effect, the simplest (and best) explanation is that the effect is not there. The suggestion in the editorial that studies with more power are needed merely emphasizes the weakness of the sought-for effect–and is not exactly great science. The suggestion I have seen elsewhere that perhaps scores of genes, each with a nearly undetectable effect, are responsible for schizophrenia is incoherent. (Indeed, it should be in the dictionary next to the definition of “hand-waving.”)

I never cease to be amazed at an aspect of  research on the genetics of schizophrenia that pops up again and again: There is a profound unwillingness to accept what the numbers say when they do not yield the “right” answer, which would be that there are well-defined genetic markers for schizophrenia. One occasionally sees this rejection of the results leading researchers who do not understand the logic of statistics and research design to draw positive conclusions from negative results. I suppose that researchers in this domain, secure in the knowledge that schizophrenia is a genetic disorder, assumed that it was simply a matter of time before technology aided in the discovery of the gene or genes responsible. When will they decide to reevaluate the logic that led them to this point, and accept the possibility that the vaunted results of twin studies are misleading because of conceptual flaws or methodological flaws or both?

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Chemical Imbalances & Mental Imbalances

Filed under: Chemical Imbalance,Diagnosis — drtone @ 8:10 am
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The widely believed and widely promoted claim that  emotional and mental disorders result from chemical imbalances in the nervous system could hardly be more defective. From a logical perspective, the proposition that mental disorders reflect neurochemical disorders confuses correlation and causation. From an empirical perspective, it confuses causes and cures. On the basis of this unwarranted assumption, doctors write millions of prescriptions every year for  medications that affect the levels of certain chemicals in the nervous system.

If antidepressants address an imbalance involving one or more neurotransmitters, it would make sense to assay the levels of those chemicals in an individual patient’s nervous system before prescribing a medication supposedly affecting those levels. That is never done in the millions of cases for which serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are prescribed. Medicine has established neither the normal levels of such neurotransmitters as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, nor a way of establishing the presence of either a deficiency or an excess of these chemicals in an individual. Therefore, the claim that chemical imbalances cause certain symptoms is without any empirical basis.

Although their efficacy is a matter of controversy, let us suppose, for the moment, that drugs such as Prozac and Zoloft do alleviate depression. Let us suppose, as well, that there is a reliable relationship between the neurochemical changes they produce and a reduction in psychiatric symptoms in those that ingest them. There would still be no reason to believe that the changes these drugs produce demonstrate a relationship between neurochemical imbalances and the mental imbalances they purportedly treat. If  aspirin cures my headache, does that mean the headache was caused by a “chemical imbalance” addressed by acetylsalicylic acid?

Let us further suppose that a reliable relationship has been established between a certain neurochemical deficiency and a psychiatric disorder, such as depression. There would still be no basis for inferring that the deficiency causes the depression, because the depression could cause the deficiency. Although every schoolchild knows that “correlation is not causation,” and although no one has demonstrated a reliable relationship between the two, the idea that abnormally high or low levels of serum serotonin “cause” depression, as promoted by psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies, has captured the public imagination.

Thus, the supposed connection of “chemical imbalances” with mental and emotional disorders is a misconception promoted by psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies that advances their own interests at the expense of the public interest. In another post, I will discuss the clinical implications of the massive propaganda campaign that has promoted this error in thinking.

Dualism And The Closed System

Filed under: Advaita,Non-Dualism — drtone @ 6:48 am
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Some time ago, I was searching for workshops on hypnosis. To my surprise and satisfaction a link from “Milton Erickson,” the name of the most famous of clinical hypnotists, took me to a site called “Radical Constructivism.” Mainly, the site discussed the implications of the idea that experience is a construction emanating from a closed system.

As I read, I found myself thinking, “this applies to Piaget.” Practically in the next instant, as I shifted to another section, I read something like, “These constructs obviously connect with Piaget’s work…” More to the point, I ended up on a page dedicated to the Chilean who won a Nobel for his breakthrough work on frog’s eyes (yes, the study of frog’s eyes can get you a Nobel Prize…if you’re a fucking genius neurophysiologist.)

A 1978 book chapter by Maturana had as much influence on my own ideas as anything I have read. When I began to read it again, I realized that I had forgotten how ridiculously hard he is to read. Although he writes fluently in English, it’s not his native language; the idiom sometimes escapes him. The real problem is that his sentences leave no stone unturned in an attempt to address a legion of potential criticisms. Anyway, he long ago began extending his scientific work into the area of human interaction, but without abandoning any of the principles guiding his science.

As Piaget understood, a dualistic ontology does not withstand scientific scrutiny and collapses when it comes to explaining consciousness. Maturana offers a non-dualistic explication of these problems and he offers a solution…in horribly complicated but ultimately lucid sentences.

According to Maturana, experience is a function of a biological organism existing as a closed system interlocked (but not interlaced) with a “medium” (defining world). The mind is in a self-organizing entity comprising all of its possibilities, including those that appear to be “outside” the organism. An organism out of balance with its medium adapts in characteristic ways, but is in increasing danger from excessive accommodation to environmental perturbations.

There are strong connections, as well, between this “package”of ideas and the Advaita school of Vedanta (HInduism). Both reject the notion of a discontinuity between the physical and the mental.  It has become a commonplace that the mind-body distinction is empirically unsupportable. Ordinarily, this recognition is applied to medical issues in the sense that mental states affect physiology. The question here is, however, much deeper, because Maturana, Piaget, and the Advaita masters, such as Ramana Maharshi and Nisigardatta, make claims about the whole of experience.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Eros & Exploration

Filed under: Sex & Love — drtone @ 10:56 am

Erotic love is a way for two people to explore the sea of grace together. I’ve come more and more to see love-making as a 24/7 activity, with every other part no different from the fucking and sucking part. The more they understand themselves as freely exploring a mutual world, the more the members of a couple come in touch with that world. Sexual feeling is  a signal, a lighthouse, something to lead us through the wilderness.

The Real Role of Psychological Testing

Filed under: Testing — drtone @ 4:40 am

For over thirteen years, from 1989 through 2002, I worked for a major test publisher as a member of the professional staff. My colleagues and I designed and developed psychological and educational instruments of various sorts.  I worked on neuropsychological instruments, pencil-and-paper tests detecting and quantifying the use of alcohol and illegal drugs, tests for use by occupational therapists and speech pathologists, and various personality instruments. A test of which I am the author is, as far as I know, still widely used in child custody evaluations.

During my time on the job, I became increasingly uncomfortable and dismayed as I came to recognize the true purpose of most psychoeducational testing. Although tests are ostensibly for collecting information that can be used clinically, they exist mainly to help professionals of all stripes, psychologists, physicians, social workers, lawyers, judges, and others, cover their collective ass. They are used principally to document and provide a basis for the difficult decisions that arise in legal, medical and mental health settings.

For example, a judge faced with a difficult child custody case–and most child custody cases are difficult–can refer to the report filed by a psychologist charged with assessing the fitness of the parents and their relationship with their children. That report usually contains the scores of the parents on my test or others like it, and on personality instruments such as the MMPI. It probably also contains test results for the child or children involved in the unhappy situation before the court. Given the enormous complexity of a custody case, and the huge ramifications for the parents and the children of the decision the judge renders, it is understandable that a judge might point to test scores, acquired at great expense, as a way of justifying and rationalizing a decision made with or without actual reference to those scores.

Intelligence and achievement tests fall into a different category. It is not true, as some insist, that those who design these tests deliberately include items and factors that discriminate against particular ethnic groups. OTOH, a score on a test such as the SAT can have a disproportionate effect on an individual’s life.  Just as is true for a personality instrument, the results of a test of ability can be used to justify important decisions, shifting responsibility away from the authorities who make those decisions.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

The Danger of Diagnosis

Filed under: Diagnosis,DSM,Uncategorized — drtone @ 12:21 pm
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A psychologist who must send a report to an insurance company in order to obtain reimbursement for treating a patient is in a difficult situation, however routine such reports may be. He or she must supply a “diagnostic code” based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, published by the American Psychiatric Association, soon to appear in a fully-revised fifth edition. Although it is not a legal document or itself the result of legislative action, the DSM has attained a quasi-legal status. Technically, for a psychologist to supply an erroneous DSM diagnostic code on an insurance form is a violation of standards that are established by law in California and other states.

DSM diagnosis, reflecting psychiatry as a branch of medicine, presupposes that there is an underlying factor similar from one patient to another that produces a set of observable symptoms, as might be the case for an infection. Never mind that such is manifestly not the case, even where a symptom picture is similar from one patient to another. A psychiatric diagnosis is, therefore, a descriptive box that fits no one. It does little, if anything, to support treatment.

Being forced to produce a diagnosis, however, cannot help but color a psychologist’s perception of a patient, no matter how much or how little faith the psychologist has in the diagnostic procedure. The psychologist treats the patient while being paid to treat his or her disorder,  a fine kettle of fish, good for no one…except the insurance company.

Note: A few days after I posted this, I found this post by Peter Breggin, which covers the same topic in a manner consistent with my point of view, but from a different angle.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The Lover’s Kiss

Filed under: Rumi — drtone @ 7:02 am
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Divine Beauty

Kings lick the earth whereof the fair are made,
For God hath mingled in the dusty earth
A draught of Beauty from his choicest cup.
Tis that, fond lover–not these lips of clay–
Thou art kissing with a hundred ecstasies,
Think, then, what it must be when undefiled.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi

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