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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

12 SEPTEMBER, 2013

David Foster Wallace on Writing, Death, and Redemption

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“You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness … has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.”

On May 21, 2005 David Foster Wallace took the podium at Kenyon College and delivered the now-legendary This Is Water, one of history’s greatest commencement addresses — his timeless meditation on the meaning of life and the grueling work required in order to stay awake to the world rather than enslaved by one’s own self-consuming intellect. It included this admonition:

Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.

Three years later, on September 12, 2008, Wallace murdered his own terrible master — not by firearms, but by hanging himself. Several months prior, frustrated with the disorienting side effects of the antidepressant he had been taking to alleviate his 20-year struggle with depression, he had attempted to wean himself off the medication. His personal tragedy was soon inscribed into the modern-day literary canon, turning him into a kind of public patron-saint of the Tortured Genius archetype.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace (public library) — an essential, the essential, collection of 22 interviews and profiles of the beloved author — reveals with empathic granularity Wallace’s conflicted relationship with life and death, and its slow, subtly menacing evolution.

In an interview by Larry McCaffery, originally published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, 31-year-old Wallace appears already remarkably aware of the mortality paradox, the exorcism of which he sees as the highest achievement of fiction:

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

This dark whimsy is what lends literature its mesmerism, and in it Wallace sees both redemption and remedy for our existential dance with anxiety:

If you’re going to try not just to depict the way a culture’s bound and defined by mediated gratification and image, but somehow to redeem it, or at least fight a rearguard against it, then what you’re going to be doing is paradoxical. You’re at once allowing the reader to sort of escape self by achieving some sort of identification with another human psyche — the writer’s, or some character’s, etc. — and you’re also trying to antagonize the reader’s intuition that she is a self, that she is alone and going to die alone. You’re trying somehow both to deny and affirm that the writer is over here with his agenda while the reader’s over there with her agenda, distinct. This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical, I think. The paradox can’t be resolved, but it can somehow be mediated — “re-mediated,” since this is probably where poststructuralism rears its head for me — by the fact that language and linguistic intercourse is, in and of itself, redeeming, remedying.

Later in the conversation, Wallace considers, with his typical sharp self-consciousness and meta-awareness, the terrifying joy and vulnerability that great art necessitates and the courage creativity calls for:

The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.

How wistful to consider that, fifteen years later, Wallace took his young self’s advice all too seriously, too literally, too extremely — for isn’t suicide the ultimate, most tragic, and most permanent denial of the ego?

But perhaps most prescient of all — most heartbreaking, most humbling, most harrowing — is something Wallace said to one interviewer particularly preoccupied with the root of the author’s genius:

That was his whole thing. “Are you normal?” “Are you normal?” I think one of the true ways I’ve gotten smarter is that I’ve realized that there are ways other people are a lot smarter than me. My biggest asset as a writer is that I’m pretty much like everybody else. The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever almost made me die.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace is revelational in its entirety. Complement it with his timeless wisdom on why writers write, the original audio of that mythic Kenyon commencement speech, and Wallace’s animated advice on ambition.

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11 SEPTEMBER, 2013

How Antidepressants Affect Selfhood, Teenage Sexuality, and Our Quest for Personal Identity

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“Though antidepressants are effective at managing negative emotions, they don’t in themselves provide the sense of meaning and direction that a person equally needs in order to find her way in life.”

“Great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” Anaïs Nin famously wrote. But what if it doesn’t balance out? What if the emotional excess, believed to be essential to creativity, was of the negative and crippling kind? One need only look at such tragic heroes as Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Marilyn Monroe, and Kurt Cobain to grasp the gravity of the proposition. And yet we remain ever so culturally ambivalent about alleviating the anguish of mental illness with the same arsenal we use against physical pain: drugs.

In Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let Us Down, and Changed Who We Are (public library), Katherine Sharpe explores the heart of this ambivalence through an intersection of her own experience, conversation with medical and psychiatric experts, and in-depth interviews with forty young adults who grew up on psychopharmaceuticals. Having spent a fair portion of my own life on antidepressants, and having recently resumed treatment, I was instantly fascinated, both as an observer of culture and a living sample size of one.

Sharpe begins with an anecdote from her college days, in which she and her six roommates arrived at the accidental and highly self-conscious realization that each one of them was, or had been, on one form of psychoactive drug or another — an incident emblematic of the pervasive and profound cultural pattern at the heart of Sharpe’s book. She writes:

It is strange, as a young person, to realize that you have lived through something that can be considered a real historical change, but that’s exactly what we had done. When I was a child, in the early 1980s, taking psychiatric medication was decidedly a fringe phenomenon. Prozac came onto the market in 1987, the year I was eight. The first member of a family of drugs called SSRIs (for “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors”), it quickly became the leading edge of a psychopharmaceutical revolution. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Americans grew ever more likely to reach for a pill to address a wide variety of mental and emotional problems. We also became more likely to think of those problems as a kind of disease, manifestations of an innate biochemical imbalance. Depression, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the like went from being strange clinical terms or scrupulously hidden secrets to constituting acceptable topics of cocktail party conversation — talk that was often followed up by chatter about the new miracle drugs for despair.

Artwork by Bobby Baker from 'Drawing Mental Illness.' Click image for more.

But more than a mere statistically swelling phenomenon — less than two decades after the introduction of Prozac, SSRIs had outpaced blood pressure medication to become America’s favorite class of drugs, popped by about 10% of the nation — Sharpe points out a troubling corollary: In permeating everyday life so profoundly, antidepressants also embedded themselves in youth, with an ever-growing number of teenagers taking psychopharmaceuticals to abate depression, ADHD, and other mental health issues. And while relief from the debilitating and often deadly effects of adolescent depression is undoubtedly preferable over the alternative, it comes with a dark side: Antidepressants confuse our ability to tell our “true self” from the symptoms of the disease, and from the effects of the medication, at a time when the search for selfhood and the construction of personal identity are at their most critical and formative stages. And given the teenage brain responds so differently to life than the adult’s, the implications are even more uneasy:

Rightly or wrongly, antidepressants command powerful emotions; they can lead people to examine their deepest assumptions about themselves and the world.

[…]

The notion that depression distorts the true self and that antidepressants merely restore what was there all along has often been invoked against the fear that by taking antidepressants, we might somehow be betraying our true natures. But that belief in particular is one that people who start medication young cannot fall back on. Worries about how antidepressants might affect the self are greatly magnified for people who begin using them in adolescence, before they’ve developed a stable, adult sense of self. Lacking a reliable conception of what it is to feel “like themselves,” young people have no way to gauge the effects of the drugs on their developing personalities. Searching for identity — asking “Who am I?” and combing the inner and outer worlds for an answer that seems to fit — is the main developmental task of the teenage years. And for some young adults, the idea of taking a medication that could frustrate that search can become a discouraging, painful preoccupation.

She relays her own experience:

When I first began to use Zoloft, my inability to pick apart my “real” thoughts and emotions from those imparted by the drug made me feel bereft. The trouble seemed to have everything to do with being young. I was conscious of needing to figure out my own interests and point myself in a direction in the world, and the fact of being on medication seemed frighteningly to compound the possibilities for error. How could I ever find my way in life if I didn’t even know which feelings were mine?

This inner torment makes perfect, if tragic, sense in the context of developmental psychology, the commonly accepted credo of which is that establishing an identity is adolescents’ primary developmental task. When that process is disrupted by folding in the effects of medication, or the adopted inner storytelling that mental illness renders one somehow handicapped or fundamentally flawed, the consequences can be serious and far-reaching:

Though antidepressants are effective at managing negative emotions, they don’t in themselves provide the sense of meaning and direction that a person equally needs in order to find her way in life.

And even though modern psychology does away with the notion of the immutable self — something Nin herself so eloquently articulated more than half a century ago — Sharpe reminds us that despite what we may rationally believe about our scientific selves, we hang on to the romantic ideal of their metaphysical manifestation with emotional fervor:

For the last twenty years, the dominant academic theories of personhood have focused not on the idea of essence but on performance and changefulness, the sense that we don and doff identities at will as we move through our lives. Intellectually, we all know that the true self is more of a metaphor than a literal reality — we don’t really believe that there is some perfectly realized version of each of us hovering out there, just waiting to be discovered like a vein of gold.

But no matter how well we understand the academic critique of the essential self, or how much we feel disposed to dismiss “Who am I?” … most of us still want to feel, in some way, like ourselves. We may never achieve the highly concrete answer to the question of who we are that we first imagine possible as a young teenager — but a notional sense of self is something that we rely on from day to day. … A feeling of authenticity is, admittedly, an intangible thing to lose — but in a society that still prizes a notion of authentic selfhood, however problematic, it can be a significant one.

Artwork by James Thurber from 'Is Sex Necessary?' Click image for more.

Among the facets of selfhood most deeply affected by adolescents’ and young adults’ use of antidepressants, Sharpe notes, is that of sexuality. Every SSRI warning label cautions that the drug might — meaning, to decode the big-pharma-euphemism here, most likely will — produce “sexual side effects” ranging from loss of interest in sex to performance difficulty to inability to reach orgasm. For teenagers, most of whom are only just beginning to experiment with and understand their sexuality — whether parents approve or not — the repercussions can have an additional layer of gravity over the frustration these “sexual side effects” present for adults:

Just as teens don’t have a sense of their baseline adult personality with which to judge whether and how antidepressants may be affecting them, teens also lack a baseline impression of their own sexuality. Adults who are familiar with their own sexual norms will have an easy time knowing when those norms have been upset. But for adolescents who are just growing into their sexuality, the picture can be more mysterious. … Because SSRIs influence not just performance but also a person’s thoughts and desires, these side effects are relevant for teens who aren’t having sex as well as for those who are.

Artwork from 'An ABZ of Love.' Click image for more.

Coming of Age on Zoloft is fantastic and pause-giving in its entirety, embodying the rare bravery of asking important, complex questions in a society that fetishizes simplistic, sensationalistic answers. In a culture where just about the most embarrassing thing is not to have an opinion, Sharpe invites us to form one that is truly our own, however inconclusive and full of what Keats called “negative capability,” rather than a borrowed one that is easier to don but devoid of true understanding. Sharpe herself puts it beautifully:

This book won’t settle those debates, but it does speak to them. Twenty-five years after the introduction of Prozac, we are still collectively attempting to figure out what an appropriate use of medication would look like, in our culture and in our individual lives. We are trying to figure out what our sadness and pain mean — if they mean anything at all — and when they attain the status of illness. We’re trying to figure out when to turn to pills, when to go another route, and how we might be able to tell. … Good answers to the big questions about medication are likely to proceed from careful attention to the actual experiences of the people who have faced them.

For more on how psychoactive drugs affect the romantic and sexual lives of adults, see biological anthropologist Helen Fisher’s excellent analysis of the neurochemistry of desire and SSRIs.

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09 SEPTEMBER, 2013

How to Do the “Step-and-Slide”: The Rules of Avoidance, Alignment, and Attraction for Deft Urban Walking

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The intricate art of the pedestrian jig, essential for maintaining personal space in a public place.

Just like the most oft-employed metaphor for the human body is that of a machine, the city is most commonly and comfortably likened to a living organism. But nowhere does this metaphor spring to life more viscerally than on the busy sidewalk of a densely populated metropolis, where people, as if controlled by the strings of an invisible and highly skilled puppeteer, manage to move in a giant, self-correcting swarm without colliding with one another. It is a remarkable sight to behold, a daily miracle in which we find ourselves participating as sophisticated automata, without stopping — not literally, of course, which would be disastrous for this whole invisible dance — to appreciate the astounding mechanisms that make this phenomenon possible.

In On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) — the same magnificent read, my favorite in ages, that demonstrated how much what we call “reality” is framed by the limitations of our selective attention — cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz examines the special skill of the urban pedestrian: a deft and intuitive maneuver known as the “step-and-slide,” which turns out to be the secret to urban swarm management.

One of the eleven experts with whom Horowitz strolls around a city block to learn new ways of seeing is Fred Kent, who founded the Project for Public Spaces thirty-five years ago after collaborating with the great William “Holly” Whyte on understanding the social life of urban spaces. Thanks to Kent, who has been observing the step-and-slide for years, Horowitz breaks down this necessarily mundane yet infinitely curious move, which researchers identified after innumerable hours of watching people walk past one another in the street:

If sidewalk traffic is dense and collision seems imminent, we pull this two-step pedestrian-dance move. While striding forward, the walker turns ever-so-slightly to the side, leading with his shoulder instead of his nose to turn the step into a side-step. We twist our torsos, pull in our bellies, and generally avoid all but the mildest brushes of other people (and if we do brush against someone else, we keep our hands close to our body and our faces turned away from one another.)

But how and why are we able to perform the step-and-slide so effortlessly? Horowitz explains:

One reason all of our step-sliding, pedestrian-jigging works is that we are regularly looking — ahead and at each other. We do not just look to see who is there; we constantly, steadily look to calculate how we need to move relative to those around us. We regularly turn our heads back and forth, to the left and right, surreptitiously peeking at who is behind us or to our sides. When our heads face forward, we survey the scene ahead of us. Our eyes make small saccades. Within a long oval projecting forward from our feet to about four sidewalk squares ahead, we quickly note the direction and pace of anyone headed our way. We also glance at others’ faces, which tell us if they are likewise looking forward into their own long ovals (and whether they are reacting to something surprising or alarming that might be behind us). There is information in the angle of others’ eyes and the turn of their head. Most of the time, people are looking where they are going: gazing straight ahead. But they begin actually inclining toward their destination when it is in sight. Should someone seem to peer over to the doorway of the building down the block, more likely than not, he will walk there directly. Or just follow his head: we all make anticipatory head movements when we are going to turn a corner. Our heads lead our bodies by eight degrees and as much as seven steps, as though all in a hurry to get around the bend. Watch a walker’s head and you can predict his path down to a single step. We learn this without anyone teaching us, and without knowing we know it.

This, of course, begs the inevitable question of what happens when our voluntary modern-day relinquishing of looking — those glowing rectangles that mesmerize us so with their siren calls of email, Facebook, Instagram, tweets, texts, and the like — hinders the very ability to notice the body language and indicative eye gazes of others, which are so critical to the performance of this collective dance. In other words, for every person who walks into a pole while staring at her iPhone, there are several sidewalk peers whose personal step-and-slides have been set off balance by her inability to master her own. This pattern, Horowitz agrees, is an especially malignant form of contemporary social ill that cripples a central convention of urban life:

The importance of this “looking” in the success of the dance comes into play with the relatively new species of pedestrian on the street: phone talkers. Their conversational habits change the dynamic of the flowing shoal. No longer is each fish aware, in a deep, old-brain way, of where everyone is around him. The phone talkers are no longer even using their fish brains: they have turned all their attention to engaging with the person on the phone. They block out their sense of someone walking too close; they fail to look into their walking ovals and step-slide out of the way. They no longer follow the rules that make walking on a crowded sidewalk go smoothly: they do not align themselves (they swerve); they do not avoid (they bump); and they do not slip behind and between others (they blunder). They stop minding the social convention to stay to the right, and weave across lanes of traffic. Texters are as bad or worse: they fail to even move their heads before turning, since they are slumped over to monitor their texting thumbs.

So how does one master the step-and-slide and avoid collision? Horowitz offers three simple, research-backed rules — known as “avoidance,” “alignment,” and “attraction” — for honing your acumen at this pedestrian jig, essential for balancing personal space against public space, personal pace amidst public pace:

  1. Avoid bumping into others (while staying comfortably close). What counts as “comfortably close” — an animal’s “personal” space — will vary by species; what is similar for all animals is that if you follow only this one rule, it forces you to attend and react to the behavior of those in your vicinity. And that is the essence of what is called swarm intelligence: everyone must make movements that are sensitive to everyone else.
  2. Follow whoever is in front of you. “Whoever” need not know where she is going: she may herself be following another. And so on and so on, until you reach the very head of the pack. Even there, the animal at the leading edge is neither leader nor sovereign. In flocks and schools, the role of leader is constantly changing hands. For only a moment will she determine the group’s direction.
  3. Keep up with those next to you. Everyone must speed or slow with attention to those around them. This seems like an impossible calculation, until you realize how little effort you have to pay to walk next to someone else down the street, never once considering how you will be able to keep at the same pace.

These rules of “avoidance,” “alignment,” and “attraction” — keeping apart while staying together — are sufficient to explain all herd, school, flock, and swarm behavior. Artificial intelligence scientists have created animations of mindless “boids” programmed with just these rules: their behavior matches that of swooping sparrows and swarming ants.

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes is absolutely fantastic — necessary, even — in its entirety. Sample more of the book’s wisdom and mesmerism here. For more on the curious dynamics of city-dwellers, see Whyte’s timelessly insightful The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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