Examining the Examined

cat scan“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” -Karen Blixen.

A psychoanalyst spends a lot of time talking to people and thinking about what makes them tick. According to the liner notes, Stephen Grosz has spent over 50,000 hours talking to patients. Even considering that “patients” are not necessarily representative of “people,” I’m thinking he has some insight into the human condition. Grosz practices in London, but he is an American, and before attending Oxford, he studied at UC Berkeley.

Stephen Grosz (2013). The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves. NY: W.W. Norton.examined life

I found this book on a “best books” list and it sounded interesting. The cover quotes Andrew Solomon as dubbing it “impossible to put down.” I found that to be the case. At slightly over 200 pages, it is a quick and enjoyable read. Not as meaty as I had hoped, but there is still a lot in there. Some of the deep insight is not very deeply explored, so it goes almost unnoticed. Grosz fills his book with examples from cases. He sometimes explains how they illustrate a point, but he often lets these stories speak for themselves. Clues to their meaning are found in some of the chapter titles, like: “How paranoia can relieve suffering and prevent a catastrophe,” “On wanting the impossible,” “How a fear of loss can cause us to lose everything,” “Why we lurch from crisis to crisis,” or “How anger can keep us from sadness.” This book contains some juicy nuggets.

Psychoanalysis spends a lot of time looking for answers in the past, retracing a developmental history that might unlock the mysteries of an individual mind. Not all schools of therapy consider it fruitful to scrutinize the story of a life. But stories seem to be part of the way people think. In psychology, the humanities, and in linguistics, the “narrative function” has been getting a lot of attention. We apparently construct ourselves through personal stories that we tell ourselves, we organize our experience using story-telling, especially in dreams, and we tell ourselves stories to avoid painful truths, and to envision a bright tomorrow.   Grosz quotes Karen Blixen, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” So stories are powerful. But painful childhood episodes can resist our attempts to weave them into ordinary stores. Our stories may be distorted or blocked entirely from awareness, but the episodes are still there. Presumably a therapist can help people tell their stories, stop telling old (untrue) stories, or write a new story.

“When we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us–we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.” – p. 10

There’s a simplistic view of behavior that says it can all be explained by the pleasure principle; we seek pleasure and avoid pain. Which is true enough, but only part of the story. There is another view that says “Pain Is Good.” Which is also true enough, but only part of the story. Our pain is there for a reason. It’s trying to tell us something. We can learn from our pain.  But only if we allow ourselves to feel it. We have all sorts of ways to avoid emotional pain. We can block memories. We can block our feelings or deaden them with drugs and alcohol. We can distort our perspective. We can selectively ignore threatening thoughts and events. Grosz uses examples from his cases to describe some of the ways we avoid pain by telling ourselves lies.

“At one time or another, we all try to silence painful emotions. But when we succeed in feeling nothing we lose the only means we have of knowing what hurts us, and why.” – p. 27

I have this idea that a lot of people spend their time in therapy talking about their love lives. Seems like a lot of money to pay someone to fill a role that might otherwise belong to a trusted friend. Since my love life is barren as the Sahara, I was afraid I would spend my therapy hours talking about squabbles with my friends. But sometimes relationships, whether with lovers or friends, can be the place we need to focus. Relating honestly and openly with people can be difficult. Some of us have a problem with intimacy. Some of us are drawn to situations that don’t work. Sometimes some of us are even drawn to situations because they don’t work. When I was very young and first discovering love, I had some setbacks. I came to know the meaning of unrequited love. When I wasn’t hung up on someone in particular, I yearned for imaginary bliss through a hypothetical love of my life. I grew familiar with lovesickness. Grosz uses case histories to talk about love. He talks about substituting sex for love. He talks about the fantastic fantasies of infatuation, and the potential difficulty of embracing the real thing, of moving into a deeper and more permanent form of love. He reminds us that the longing for intense closeness that comes with being lovesick can be a regression to childhood craving for a mother’s affection. He says we are susceptible when we experience loss or despair. Our longing may have nothing to do with our current love object. Our fantasies are not being compared with reality. Maybe that particular relationship is not there to fill a need or desire in the way we have envisioned it. I can tell from my own experience that it is not good to get stuck in lovesickness.

“And while loneliness can be useful–motivating us to meet someone new, for example–a fear of loneliness can work like a trap, ensnaring us in heartsick feelings for a very long time. At its worst, lovesickness becomes a habit of mind, a way of thinking about ther world that is not altogether dissimilar to paranoia.” p. 111.

Can people ever really change?  Not everyone who tries to change does. But some do. Psychoanalysis uses a premise that we can move toward change by becoming aware of what we are actually doing, and why we do it. The examples in this book illustrate this premise. If we want to change, we might need to shake things up a bit.

“Psychoanalysts are fond of pointing out that the past is alive in the present. But the future is alive in the present too. The future is not some place we’re going to, but an idea in our mind now. It is something we’re creating, that in turn creates us. The future is a fantasy that shapes our present.”- p. 157

psychoanalysis grosz


2014.1.18 Two to get ready, three to go.

Sometimes I get an urge and, even though it threatens to unbalance my precarious overloaded life, I throw caution to the wind and go for it. This was the case in December when, swept up in the frenzy of best of 2013, I started googling for best books and new titles in the social sciences. A year ago I discovered some great books this way. I guess it was a little early to find 2013 lists. But I highlighted two books from 2012 I just had to have, and put on a hold at the county library. These two books were The guardian of all things: The epic story of human memory, by Michael S. Malone (2012, NY: St. Martin’s Press), and Louder than words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning, by Benjamin K. Bergen (2012, NY: Basic Books). When I went to pick them up, I discovered a third book, not quite so new, that I just had to have. This was Descartes baby: How the science of child development explains what makes us human, by Paul Bloom (2004, NY: Basic Books). Bloom’s name rang a bell and the title was catchy, so I grabbed it. I walked out of there with three more books to add to my already deep pile.

With Michael Malone’s memory book I was hoping to learn more about recent research on how memory works, specifically how information is stored in the brain and moved from place to place. The guardian of all things, turned out to be more of a history book. That includes some very, very ancient history, beginning with the evolution of memory in primates. It then takes up the history of civilization including the beginnings of trade and the history of writing, which allows up to preserve our collective memory. So yes, an epic story indeed. He rounds it all out with the history of data processing and computer memory.

louder than wordsLouder Than Words was more up my alley. Bergen is associate professor of cognitive science at UCSD. He studies the relationship between perception, mental representation and language. He is an advocate of something called “embodied simulation.” This idea is based on the discovery, using fMRI, that the same brain motor and visual cortex areas are activated when we talk about something, as are activated when we do something or see something. The idea is that we understand language by simulating whatever the words represent, using the same brain areas that are used in perceiving the world and performing actions.

This book describes a lot of research studies. This serves three purposes. First, it shows how the history of the ideas it presents. Second, it illustrates the ideas by giving concrete examples. And third, it shows how social science uses experiments to answer questions and test hypotheses. The studies also introduce us to some of the researchers in the field who have contributed to the theory of “embodied simulation, exploring how we understand words.

Benjamin BergenSome of the studies are classic, such as the 1910 work of C.W. Perky, who discovered the Perky effect by projecting dim slides of bananas or leaves on a blank wall where she asked participants to imagine a banana or a leaf. She discovered that mental imagery can interfere with perception of the real world, suggesting that they may both use the same part of the brain. Other classic studies include the time lag in mental rotation of geometric shapes (Shepard & Metzler, 1971) and in imaginary journeys around an island (Kosselyn, Ball, & Reiser, 1978). A lot of work has been done since the seventies, but there is still disagreement about the role of mental simulation and what it all means. An important milestone was the discovery of mirror neurons in macaque monkeys by scientists at the University of Parma in the the 1980s (Gallese, Fadiga, Fogassi, & Rozzolatti, 1996).

What does anything mean? What is meaning? How do we grasp meaning? Communicate meaning? These are some of the philosophical questions that cognitive psychologists are attempting to answer with empirical methods. Linguists are also involved, sometimes pointing the way. For example, in construction grammar linguists study the way sentence structure and grammatical constructions convey meaning that is more than the meaning contained in the individual words in the structure. And when we start talking about meaning, we easily veer into Semantics, a favorite subject of mine within linguistics. Some studies have explored the timing of a simulation in understanding, showing that we begin to simulate before a sentence is completed, running a new simulation in mid sentence if our guess about the meaning doesn’t match the progression of what we’re hearing or reading. Bergen says we simulate “early and often.”

Languages differ from place to place. An important and controversial topic is how meaning and understanding of the world varies according to the particular language we speak. For example, I once wondered, is their blue without the word blue? Can concepts exist nonlinguistically, or are they created in conjunction with the learning of the words we use to label them, in a culturally variable context? Bergson mentions that in English pink and red are two different things, while in Russian they are both variants of red, but sky blue and regular blue are two different things with two different words.

“To learn a language is to learn a particular way of talking about the world, cutting it up into meaningful parts that we encode through the words in our particular language.” p. 188.

“To know a language is to mean in that language.” p. 194.

Metaphor is a strange and fascinating creature. Our understanding of time seems to be metaphorical. We talk about time using the terminology of space, and apparently use the same parts of our brain that are used to understand spatial relations. Metaphor may also be the paradigm for much other abstract thinking. Bergson suggests that we construct abstract concepts based on concrete concepts and use similar mental simulation in talking and thinking about both.

This book is up to date, informative and a good read. And now we come to my favorite part, further reading ideas from the notes and references! These are at the end of this blog post.

While Bergen argues that meaning, a primary mental capacity of humans, is embodied, Paul Bloom in Descartes’ Baby (2004), took what almost seems like the opposite approach, carefully distinguishing our understanding of mental aspects and physical aspects of the world. Sixteenth century philosopher Rene Descartes wrote about our dualistic nature, the distinction between mind and body, a viewpoint which A. Damasio referred to as “Descartes’ Error.” Bloom believes that we can deepen our understanding of human nature by looking at early development. He shows how, from early on, we have mental capacities to understand the physical world and separate but equally important capacities to understand other people, their thoughts, feelings and intentions. This is a new take on dualism as a feature of humans, one that begins with babies. But it seems like what Bloom is saying, and showing, is not that the mind and the body are separate, but that the mind has the ability to understand both minds and bodies, bodies here being an example of physical things. Not nearly as astonishing, but a good strategy for organizing a lot of interesting information.
Bloom reviews research from developmental psychology, clinical psychology, and neuroscience to illustrate his point. The book is anecdotal and entertaining and presents a lot of key findings in recent psychological research. It also ties back into long-standing philosophical questions. Many things are considered from an evolutionary perspective, looking at the adaptive advantage of behaviors and traits. The readability disguies the significance of some of the ideas presented. Unfortunately, it also seems to camouflage their memorability.
Our thinking about categories of objects involves essential or defining qualities. The use of essences in thinking about objects is “essentialism.” With this we are thrust into the midst of the controversy between culturalism and nativism. Cultural anthropology has advocated that essentialism is a product of Western culture. Bloom disagrees. He thinks it has something to do with evolution. But he also thinks essentialism sometimes goes too far, such as when we attribute qualities to, for example, a race, which really aren’t there. Bloom thinks race is to a large extent, an “artifact,” something created by people. Artifacts are different from “natural kinds,” things that are not created by people. He talks about essentialist biases that distort children’s thinking about natural kinds.
Bloom turns his attention to modern art. He talks about “anxious objects,” artifacts that stimulate an emotional response. He discusses research on children’s understanding of the difference between mental representation and real objects. And he explores the idea that we can best understand art as a form of performance.
Next Bloom tackles another hot topic, the evolutionary basis of good and evil, and human morality. This involves empathy and altruism. A lot has been written lately about the adaptative advantage of altruism. How could helping others at a cost to ourselves appear as a result of evolutionary forces? Does it involve kin selection (William Hamilton)? Group selection (E.O. Wilson)? Mutual advantage through reciprocity? All these and more? He clarifies the view that natural selection involves the survival of animals that are “merely the gene’s way of making another gene” (Richard Dawkins). Bloom discusses emotional contagion, one of my favorite topics, and shows how it is the first step in empathy and compassion. And we can’t get through this topic without covering mimicry, imitation, and mirror neurons. The text contains some great photos of baby and mother faces taken from Field et al, 1982, “Discrimination and imitation of facial expressions by neonates,” Science 218, 179-181. How does the newborn baby mimic facial expressions and experience emotional contagion before it can “understand” any of it? Amazing.

In his discussion of dualism, Bloom acknowledges that “we do not occupy our bodies, we are our bodies.”  And he challenges the older view that children don’t understand the difference between fantasy and reality. No matter how much time they spend in the world of make-believe, they seem to know the difference from real-life.

Bloom is a psychology professor at Yale. He also wrote, How children learn the meaning of words (2002), which I am dying to read. He seems to have a nose for hot topics. He wrote Just babies: The origin of good and evil (2011), and How pleasure works: The new science of why we like what we like (2010).

Here are some gems from Bloom’s references:

Gelman, S.A. 2003. The essential child. NY: Oxford University Press.

Gopnik, A. and A.N. Meltzoff, 1997. Words, thoughts, and theories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hauser, M.D. 2000. Wild minds: What animals really think. NY: Henry Holt.

Habson, R.P. 2002. The cradle of thought: exploring the origins of thinking. London: Macmillan.

Sterlny, K. 2001. Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the fittest. NY: Totem Books.

Here are the hot references from Bergen’s Louder than words:

Barsalou, L.W. (1999). Perceptual symbol systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22, 577-609.

Bergen , B. & Chang, N. (2005). Embodied construction grammar in simulation-based language understanding. In J.-O. Ostman & M. Fried (Eds.), Construction grammars: Cognitive grounding and theoretical extensions (pp. 147-190). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Boroditsky, L. (2011). How language shapes thought. Scientific American, February 2011.

Bowdle, B. & Gentner, D. (2005). The career of metaphor. Psychological Review, 112(1), 193-216.

Feldman, J.A. (2006). From molecule to metaphor:A neural theory of language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hagoort, P. (2005). On Broca, brain, and binding: a new framework. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 416-423.

Kaschak, M.P. & Glenberg, A.M. (2000). Constructing meaning: The role of affordances and grammatical constructions in sentence comprehension. Journal of Memory & Languages, 58, 508-529.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, fire and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: HarperCollins.

Stefanowitsch, A. (2004). HAPPINESS in English and German: A metaphorical-pattern analysis. In M. Achard & S. Kemmer (Eds.), Language, culture, and mind (pp. 137-149). Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Talmy, L. (2000). Toward a cognitive semantics. In Concept structuring systems: Volume 1. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


At some point, …

At some point, life starts to pass you by and becomes about avoidance. I want to stay clear from that situation, because I don’t like that.
Daniel Craig

Griefs and Discontents

Mutual DiscontentGregory Rochlin is amazing. Rochlin was Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Harvard medical school. His book Griefs and Discontents: The Forces of Change, was published in 1965. Like most of his generation of psychiatrists he was heavily influenced by Freudian ideas. In spite of some antiquated constructs, his ideas are still relevant. Rochlin had a practical understanding of the human condition and an ability to put things into perspective using accessible language. Though his wording is a bit stiff, he is a pleasure to read. Rochlin is all but forgotten today. I could find no photos or bios of him on the internet.

Through our use of words, concepts, causal explanations, methodology and theoretical premises change, there are universal themes in human experience which people have grappled with since the dawn of history. How do we overcome disappointment and learn to be at least as realistic as is necessary to achieve some serenity in life? I suppose the first step is stop using unreasonable expectations to set ourselves up for disappointment. Beyond that, Rochlin’s ideas are inspiring. He also recognizes the primacy of sociality in understanding the human condition, an idea which I cherish and am pursuing with all deliberate speed.

I read the book twice and the pages are aflutter with post-it notes of a few of the memorable passages.  I’ve been holding onto it for months, because I want to write a post on “Failure,” and he has a chapter, “The Psychology of Failure.” But now I’m busy with a thousand other things, and I need to get some books back to the library so I can work on a paper I need to write  for a class I’m taking. So before pulling the post-its and dumping the little treasure in the return slot, I read through the passages I had marked. I don’t have time to do a proper set of notes on the whole book, so here are some memorable quotes. Keep in mind that Rochlin uses the word “ego”  in the Freudian sense of “the me,” or “self,” not in the current colloquial sense which implies arrogance or self-centeredness.

From chapter 1, “The Dread of Abandonment:”

“In man, therefore, the principle of homeostasis includes an object without which its aims cannot be achieved. The tendency toward constancy, the achievement of the pleasure principle, and the adherence to the reality principle, man cannot gain alone. He can succeed in these aims only through the society of another person.” (p.15)

“Depression is the psychology of disappointment. A common and naively proposed assertion is that depression is a reaction to frustration, simple aggression or deprivation. Psychoanalytic studies of children who have experienced object loss, in fact or fantasy, through separation of deprivation, or in whom an adequate object relationship has failed to develop, have shown that the clinical picture is ruled by the infantile vicissitudes of aggression which are associated with unfulfilled expectations. When these governing elements include a severely self-critical faculty, depression ensues.” (p. 16)

One of Rochlin’s primary themes is that we never actually accept loss, and will suffer until we have substituted something for the place previously held by what has been lost. From chapter 4, “Loss and Restitution:”

“The denial of reality, the negation of a loss, fantasies of loss without recompense, or the turning from despair to elation are common signs which signify that an anxious process to settle accounts with oneself is in full operation. Such reactions find their most important expression in the alteration of reality. On countless occasions, many of which in themselves may seem trivial, they indicate that escape from the burden of a sense of loss is imperative. It appears, therefore, that acceptance of a loss in emotional life is  but a philosophic and academic concept. It is probably neither a clinical fact nor a human characteristic.” (p. 131)

“A consideration of the problems involved in loss and restitution rests substantially on the psychodynamics of self-esteem. Self-esteem, unlike many other qualities, is perishable. It is easily lost and difficult to recapture. It is indispensable but unstable, readily affected by a variety of influences; care must be taken to insure its preservation. Its loss must be redeemed. A forfeited, damaged, or decreased self-esteem is an unacceptable condition. Whatever lowers it needs to be worked off. To preserve it also requires effort. Thus the condition of self-esteem is not permanently achieved; it requires constant attention for its maintenance.” (p. 132-133)

“Guilt is an oppressive conflict. It compels relief.” (p. 162)

From chapter 5, “Creativity:”

“The most intolerable condition that seems to confront man is that of his own limitations, if one is to judge from the variety of his attempts to overcome them. A curtailment of his freedom or of himself as a physical being does not fail to mobilize him for a struggle to assert his liberty or to contrive compensations for whatever restrictions he may suffer. When his grasp is not equal to his reach he devises implements. And when he fears his life is going to be too short, which it always seems to be, he finds a way to extend it beyond death into immortality. Whatever view he may hold of the limitations that are man’s lot, he never finds them acceptable, nor is he resigned to them.” (p. 184-185)

“Constant fear and dread of loss is not acceptable to man and forces restitution, the route to which is creativity.” . . . “Viewed in this light, creativity is a means through which the oppressive grind of daily life may be mitigated and from which compensation for it is fashioned.” (p. 196)

From chapter 6, “The Psychology of Failure:”

“. . . whatever evokes the awareness of limitations creates a condition that is not acceptable and needs to be remedied. Thus the common experience of failure in realizing an enterprise, or even a wish, will produce a reaction to offset it, which may be a fantasy or an act or both. Thus in most important areas of his life the child succeeds in overcoming his inevitable failures. From these experiences the child may see that failure is not irrevocable. In this and other beliefs that the child evolves, nothing is irrevocable, neither failure nor the end of life itself.” (p. 232)

“The vicissitudes of narcissism and self-esteem appear to be a unifying thread which is woven throughout the entire fabric of human development. As a consequence the fate of narcissism in all stages of development has a determinative influence and bearing on the outcome and dynamics of any one of them.” (p. 251)

“The drive to acquire skills and to achieve mastery is often accompanied by grandiose wishes that are coupled with magical beliefs in the power of such wishes. These are some of the principal means employed to transcend a life that is intimately dependent upon others. Daily experience, the realities of which enforce the truth that limitations exist, perpetuates a conflict throughout life that only under the extraordinary conditions of psychosis appears to be resolved by relinquishing reality. These mental mechanisms, devices, and efforts, indicating magical thinking, childish in their origins, are but slowly given up. They are never abandoned altogether.” (p. 285)

“The reaction to failure of ego functions is experienced in the same way as is the loss of any valued function: the individual feels humiliated and demeaned. Self-devaluation begins and ushers in the typical symptoms of self-denigration and depression. Relief may then be sought in the satisfaction derived from regressive behavior.” (p. 295)

From chapter 7, “The Loss of Function:”

“Life is not conducted alone, nor for that matter is death. Life after death is not conceived of as a lonely existence, except as a punishment. Otherwise life after death is conceived to be a joining with others either in heaven or hell, or if one returns to roam the earth in a reincarnation, such an existence is not thought to be a lonely one. These persistent beliefs are brought up not to argue that Heaven and Hell are crowded but to show that the solutions that man finds are in terms of his relations with other people and especially with those who are personally important to him, whether these solutions are addressed to problems that exist when he is alive or to those that he believes arise when he has died.” (p. 359)

Also from “The Psychology of Failure,” but more explicitly Freudian:

“Narcissism is no mere fact of life or a simple characteristic of it. Narcissism is a part of the process of self-preservation; and whenever that is threatened, narcissism protects it. Regardless of what transitions take place in respect to narcissism in the course of development of object relations, narcissism is indispensable to offset the dangers to self-esteem. Nor is self-esteen a mere aspect of the human condition. It too is a complex process held in precarious balance that relies in great measure on narcissism to right it. The excesses to which narcissism may be developed are always related to the fragility of self-esteem. Moreover, careful study of narcissism has shown that the restoration of a lowered or lost self-esteem requires, in addition to vanity, an object relationship for libidinal gratification even if it must be gained in a pathological fashion. Narcissism is the libidinal component of the instinct of self-preservation, and self-esteem is its ego manifestation. The executant functions of the ego, by skill, mastery, achievement, by controlling and manipulating and thus affecting the environment so as to provide a better adaptation to reality, sustain self-esteem. Conversely, when the executant functions do not develop sufficiently to make such aims possible, self-esteem suffers and a sense of one’s precarious position or failure prevails.” (p. 315)


Smells Like Fish


Looks like China has another environmental disaster on their hands with 100 tons of dead fish in the Fuhe river in Hubei province. The deaths resulted from  an ammonia spill at a chemical plant. I thought I detected glimmerings of environmental awareness in China, but it may take a while before they make much progress in slowing pollution and cleaning up their mess.

The Chinese leadership should have this catastrophe on their conscience, as well as the general condition of the environment in China and ecological impact beyond their borders. If these catastrophes are on their conscience, maybe they will be motivated to move faster in solving their country’s environmental problems. I can think of at least three things that would be required. They would have to have consciences. Additionally, they have to care about damage to the environment, whether it’s ravaged terrain, dead citizens, or dead fish. And, they would have to see some connection between their personal roles in society and the undesirable contamination.

We humans are apparently not born with a conscience, but normally develop one at an early age. Grazyna Kochanska and Nazan Aksan at the University of Iowa have done a longitudinal study on the development of conscience and published their findings in a December 2006 Journal of Personality article, “Children’s Conscience and Self-Regulation.” They found evidence of “distress following transgressions” as early as age two. The concept of conscience is associated with guilt, the emotion. Guilt has been categorized as a social emotion, possibly having to do with our existence in a social context and shaped through socialization. It is also a moral emotion, regulating our behavior in relation to notions of right and wrong, which may be culturally determined. There are individual differences in the feeling of guilt and in the development of conscience. For some guilt is all too common, often appearing in inappropriate situations. For others, guilt is rare. These people sometimes seem to have no conscience at all. Children deficient in guilt apparently are at risk for conduct disorder, aggression, and antisocial personality disorder (psychopaths).

So we feel guilt when we did something bad and we know it was wrong. But apparently not if we didn’t intentionally do the thing, like if we were ordered to do it. Then we may not feel personally responsible, and thus escape guilt. This unhappy phenomenon has been studied in connection with Nazi Germany. For example Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), describes how the perspective of Adolf Eichmann (“engineer of death”) on his war crimes was distorted by his lack of a sense of personal responsibility, because he was “only carrying out orders.”

History will reveal whether the Chinese leadership takes responsibility for the environmental catastrophes within their borders. I doubt they will be exonerated on the basis of participation in progress toward greater prosperity and the good of the people, no matter how laudable those goals.

eichmann on trial

Adolf Eichmann was sentenced to death.


800px-Descente_de_croix_du_retable_Stauffenberg_(_détail_),_oeuvre_du_Maître_du_retable_de_Stauffenberg,_actif_au_15ème_siècle_(Musée_d'Unterlinden,_Colmar)Now that I’ve been ordered to Santiago de Compestela to do 2,013 Hail Mary’s for swearing on my blog, I’m starting to contemplate more seriously my relationship with the holy mother. Not that I was raised Catholic, or really even know much about it.  I just like Mary because she looks so sad and is compassionate. I guess that’s why they call her Our Lady of Sorrow. People turn to her in times of grief and sadness, to be consoled. And who doesn’t need to be consoled now and then?

Sorrow, or sadness, and the closely related emotion, grief, are painful. Like a lot of feelings. I wish they would go away, or be under control, or yield to reason. But I don’t think of my feelings as the unfortunate result of a failed attempt to rise above the animal level. I think our emotions are there for a reason. Frank Herbert in Dune said, “Fear is the mind killer.” Fear apparently does slow down our thinking, but for a reason. It’s so we can be ready to act to protect ourselves from danger, and not get gobbled up while we’re deciding what to do. So what does sadness do for us, besides make us mope and pout?

I got interested in sadness because it is similar to depression. I got interested in depression because I wanted to know how to get rid of it! Depression feels kind of like sadness, only worse. There seems to be an overlap. I suppose I could say they co-occur, or one leads to the other. But they are not the same thing. An important book has been written about this, The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder (Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield, 2007). We don’t need a pill every time we feel sad. There are ways to deal with it. And it serves a function. But sadness can get out of control.

One way to deal with sadness is by crying. Charles Darwin, after shaking things up with evolution, published The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Darwin thought that crying expresses suffering, “both bodily pain and mental distress.” So is sadness also a response to suffering, or is sadness actually a form of suffering, provoked by some event or situation?

Silvan Tomkins, one of the early researchers in the mid-twentieth century revival of interest in the study of emotion, wrote an entire book on the negative emotions, but there is no chapter on sadness (Affect, Imagery and Consciousness, volume 2, The Negative Affects, 1962). There is a chapter, though, titled “Distress-Anguish and the Crying Response.” Tomkins lists several functions of crying. First and foremost it indicates to the one crying and communicates to others that all is not well. Seems simple. Something is wrong. Something bad happened.  Something is not how I want it. I am unhappy, probably sad. If I experience distress, then I likely feel that I need help. I might even cry, especially if I am very young, don’t understand what’s going on, and can’t take care of myself. Crying also motivates. We look for ways to alleviate the bad situation. We want the crying to stop.

Fear is also an emotional response to something that’s not okay. But it is something dangerous or threatening, and something that might happen, like getting attacked. Tomkins speculates that distress evolved in connection with higher thinking power because fear would be too toxic a response to suffering. We would be quickly worn out and used up if we became terrified every time something was not right.

“There are three general sources of human suffering – the ills of the body, the frustrations of interpersonal relationships and the recalcitrance of nature to human striving and achievement.”

– Silvan Tomkins

Jack Panksepp, a researcher and prolific writer on animal emotion, emphasizes the parallels between human and animal emotion. He believe that there are several separate basic emotion systems in our brain. Sadness is not on the list. He does however describe a “Separation Distress Panic System,” which is similar to Tompkins description of Distress-Anguish, and seems to incorporate somewhat the emotional experiences we label as sadness. Like Tomkins, he emphasizes the communication function in alerting caregivers to tend the needs of the young. This promotes attachment and social responsiveness, and it is easy to imagine how this system might continue to 0perate in a more grownup form throughout life. But it seems narrower in scope than Tomkins’  motivating emotional force that produces internal suffering when something is going wrong and needs tending to.

It seems that serious recent research into sadness is sadly lacking. The best discussion of sadness I have found is a chapter called “The Psychobiology of Sadness,” in Severe and Mild Depression: The Psychotherapeutic Approach, published in 1978 by Silvano Arieti and Jules Bemporod. They describe sadness as a “special pain” which is not physical but mental. These authors were psychoanalysts in the Freudian tradition, although they were familiar with the early work of Aaron Beck and other cognitive therapists. They asserted that in humans all emotions have at least some cognitive component.

“Normal sadness is the emotional effect on a human being when he apprehends a situation that he would have preferred not to occur, and which he considers adverse to his well-being.”

– Silvano Arieti

Sadness motivates us to engage in what these authors call “sorrow work.” This is the normal and healthy processing of our sadness. It is a cognitive restructuring that results in a change of expectations, assumptions about the future, interpretations of the past, our plans, or goals and ambitions. Sorrow work can take time, as when it becomes necessary to accept that the dearly departed will not be with us today, or tomorrow, or the day after. When sorrow work doesn’t happen, or doesn’t “work,” depression can result. Arieti and Bemporod also thought sadness is a “specifically human phenomenon,” although simple forms of it may be present in other animals.

What is the difference between distress and sadness? Sadness might be a broader category. Perhaps distress is sadness combined with an urge to shout about it. Where does grief come in? I think grief is a response to loss. Some authors seem to interpret all sadness as a response to loss of some kind, but I think that might be stretching things. Do human emotions of sadness and grief differ significantly from what occurs in other mammals, because of our higher cognitive functioning, more developed prefrontal cortex and expansion of symbolic representation into the use of language? Some caution us not to read too much into what appear to be emotional responses in animals, evidenced in facial expressions or behavior. But more and more research seems to be pointing in the direction of a marked similarity in emotion between humans and most other mammals. Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy explored this questions in When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals (1996). Myself, I think cats and dogs, for example, experience sadness which is indistinguishable from that of their human masters. I also think their cognitive abilities, including the ability to engage in symbolic thought, with or without the use of language, may far exceed what has been so far suspected by most scientific researchers.

sad leopard

Monkey with A Grenade

money photo with a grenade shopped

French president Francois Hollande says France is ready to punish those responsible for the killing of innocent civilians in Syria with poison gas. Britain is climbing on board. The U.S. has warships in position, apparently aimed and ready to fire at chemical weapon stockpiles.

What are the risks? Is Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin right that the west interfering in moslem countries is like a monkey with a grenade? Is Rogozin a twitting idiot?

Will Russia come to Syria’s defense?  I think Putin wants to punch Obama in the nose.  Anyone for a game of nuclear hijinks?

2013 aug 21 3464325_3_fd2a_des-bombardements-dans-la-banlieue-de-damas-ont_11b02b2292cca1ed956b9722a9d5becf

Bring out your dead.

High Speed (de)Rail


I was inspired by the progress in China with implementing high speed rail and made a post on facebook (oops I said the F-word). This started a heated discussion among members of a family with opposing political viewpoints. Two of them reside in South America and them and another relative have rode the rails in Italy and other European destinations.

Are we falling behind? Should we care? Do we want more rail? Would anyone use it? What does USA stand for? Is Europe better, more fun, cool, sick, whatever?

Let’s hope we do a better job with those automated speed controls that let the driver run blind. Blindly into a concrete wall.

And please if you’re going to f*ck up and kill some people, don’t do it to pilgrims arriving at a sacred site. That’s not spiritual.


Jose Garzon, driver of the train, is led away after helping search the wreckage for survivors.