Book Reviews

Behavior and Adaptation

Life is change. For most of history, change was transmitted only through birth. Looking at the natural world, then, Darwin and his followers upheld the survival of our genes as the compulsion that drives our every behavior. In the mental health world, Freud also flirted with that view (everything is about sex).

But humanity has subdued the natural world with our ideas. Corn, cows and cars wouldn’t exist if ideas weren’t transmissible from person to person after birth. That exchange of ideas is also an adaptive process, but it’s not Darwinian. It’s closer to the evolution proposed by Lamarck, which is thousands of times faster than Darwin’s evolution through gene transmission.

As human beings, then, we are a combination of Darwinian (sexual) impulses and Lamarckian (intellectual) impulses. Sadly, just as our relationship with the natural world is out-of-balance, the tension between genes and ideas also drives us out of balance in our relationship with the self. Our mind changes far faster than our body. Worse, improving the mind occurs through experiences that often limit the body (and visce-versa). To keep this competition under control, the mind divides into two: the conscious mind that learns and adapts to a changing world, and the subconscious mind that manages our well-being and “automatic” behaviors.

Hypnotherapy is helpful in maintaining or restoring balance between the conscious and subconscious parts of our mind. Often that means negotiating alternatives to genetically inherited behaviors – most commonly the “fight or flight” response, but also lowered mood (sadness or depression) or pain. It’s important to understand those foundations of the personality as the basis for our work.

It was this need that stimulated my interest in Randolph Nesse’s new work “Good Reasons for Bad Feelings.” Nesse is an advocate of Evolutionary Psychiatry – a discipline that holds that we can understand the cause of mental disease as imbalances or extreme cases of behaviors that ensure that our genes are passed on. Explicit in the Nesse’s framing of the issue is that those genes cause defects in our brains that predispose us to the disease.

The book considers, chapter by chapter, our major mental health problems. In each case, Nesse proposes explanations for why more primitive species would have benefited from the behavior. The fear response triggers fight or flight, which in the right balance ensures that we mate as frequently as possible. Depression pushes us to abandon unattainable goals. Altruistic behaviors imply loyalty to sexual partners that depend upon that loyalty to ensure the survival of children over the decade preceding self-sufficiency. These are all plausible explanations for why genes that code for those traits would continue to be passed on, despite making us susceptible (respectively) to irrational phobias, suicide, and sexual manipulation.

As documented in detail by Nesse (I have to admire his integrity), the defect in this proposition is that no study has been able to identify consistent genetic differences between those that suffer from mental illness and those that don’t. The doubt generated by this observation is reinforced by clinical studies that demonstrate the importance of individual life experience in determining who suffers from mental illness. Unfortunately, the administration of determinative assessments takes hours – far more than is possible in a busy clinical setting.

Of course, life experience is not predictable. As with medicine, the preventative utility of genomic markers is seductive, perhaps leading Nesse to flog a proposition that appears to have a limited future.

In specific sections of the book, the blurry boundary between genomics and culture is evident. Child rearing doesn’t require a commitment from the male – in fact some feminist authors assert that agriculture was invented by women in part because they stayed in camp to share those duties while the men went out to hunt. So Nesse’s explanation for cooperation is arguably cultural. A more direct descent from genomics might be grooming to remove pests, which is manifested even among fish.

Nesse sets his observations against the backdrop of his clinical and professional development. All are set as heroic outcomes – illustrations of clinical innovations, or transformative insights that puncture professional myopia. As a hypnotherapist, however, some of the clinical innovations seem barbaric – exposure therapy for those suffering severe phobias is one illustration. And the primacy of evolutionary psychiatry seems overblown when outcomes depend upon life experience.

Both matters are dealt with more elegantly in practices (such as hypnotherapy) that recognize the division of the mind between conscious and subconscious realms. I was surprised when I encountered psychologists that disputed that division, and Nesse is defensive in the sections in which he recognizes its importance. His hesitancy indicates that the dispute is more widely entrenched than I knew.

This is an omission that I find indefensible. The tension between biological and social imperatives explains so much regarding our behavior – and mental vulnerabilities.  Even more, those insights inform powerful therapeutic strategies that are known to be gentler and more efficacious than the alternatives described by Nesse.

To conclude, “Good Reasons for Bad Feelings” is an excellent survey of mental health issues, and in relating those pathologies to behavioral benefits, Nesse reduces the stigma that burdens sufferers. I am concerned, however, that his focus on genetics will delay recognition that the genome specifies an architecture for the brain that is vulnerable to cultural pathologies. In both the formation of synapses and the allocation of blood flow, the brain is wonderfully plastic. That faculty facilitates the spread of ideas, but also the insinuation of contradictions that manifest as pathological behavior. Evolutionary psychiatry only sets the table – it doesn’t determine the contents of life’s meal.

Basics

Personal Development: Part 1

Change Matters

Our conscious mind likes checklists. Once a goal is set, it can use all the tools of reason to create a plan. And checking off that goal is a satisfying reward. We know that we’ve accomplished something!

For the subconscious, the checklist isn’t so sexy. It’s not concerned with “what do I do?” but with “how am I?” In the beginning, “how am I?” is basic: am I comfortable? Hungry? Sleepy? As we gain control over those needs, our concerns change. Am I loved? Excited? Smart? These “how am I?” questions don’t go away. When we eat, we know that we’re going to be hungry again. Even if we are smart at math, we may need to work on our grammar.

The conscious mind struggles with “How am I?” problems because conditions change. We finish eating the cherries (om nom nom!), leaving the brussels sprouts (yuck!). We finish fourth grade, and our fifth-grade teacher doesn’t teach math so well. And eventually we grow up and our parents expect us to take care of ourselves. When changes like this occur, our plans break down.

It’s left to the subconscious mind to make certain that we recognize and adapt to change. Motivations help us focus on changes that matter; behaviors are how we react to those changes. For example, our motivation to be indoors at night causes us to watch where the sun is in the sky. When it gets low, our behavior is to head back home.

In most animals, behaviors are driven by material change: weather, growth and injury to the body, and other creatures. For people, there is another powerful source of change: our minds. When we learn to manage our basic needs, our mind becomes the most important of all. Paradoxically, its greatest power is in imagining things that haven’t happened or that don’t yet exist.

So how is the subconscious going to deal with that, ensuring that “we are like we want to be” when we get to the unknown? Particularly when the “unknown” includes how our brain works? Well, the subconscious relies upon the conscious mind to monitor and predict our progress. When a behavior fails and we end up sleeping cold and hungry in the open, the “why it happened” goes from our conscious mind into our subconscious mind which works during sleep to adjust our motivations and behaviors.

It’s that ability that makes us different from machines, and leads us into the realm of spirit.

Basics, Specializations

War of the Psyche – 3 of 6

A Hypnotherapist’s View: Basic Behavior

Battle trauma creates an imbalance in the warrior’s mind. Fear dominates his or her expectations. Obviously battle is not a typical experience, and the imbalance is extreme.

But parents raise children with predispositions toward euphoria or fear. When the former is expected, the child becomes adventurous. When the latter is expected, the child is protective. Most children have experiences that balance those expectations – they may be adventurous in one context and protective in another.

Until the 1950s, many hypnotists believed that protective people could not be hypnotized. Unfortunately, it is the protective person that most often needs hypnotherapy. As his practice became dominated by such clients, Dr. John Kappas applied himself to cracking their hypnotic code.

In the course of that study, surprising behavioral differences were revealed. Most naturally, adventurers (called “physicals” by Kappas) attract attention and crave intimacy, while protectors (called “emotionals”)  dress conservatively and prefer time alone. Less obviously: adventurers tend to answer questions indirectly, taking the listener on a journey of experience. Protectors tend to be terse – in extreme cases answering only with “yes” and “no.” Paradoxically, adventurers interpret requests literally – they take words at their face value – while protectors anticipate the motivations behind the request and act accordingly.

As regards the psychic struggle of combat stress, the most important difference is that the adventurer invests heart in every relationship, while the protector invests mind. They both care – and in fact complement one another. Adventurers without a protector find themselves out on a limb; protectors without an adventurer find themselves isolated and bored.


Part 1 || Part 2 | Part 4

Basics

Why Hypnotherapy – 1 of 2

Hypnotherapy helps us change our behavior.

Why is that help necessary? It seems that when we realize that our behavior is hurting us, it should be easy to change our mind and act differently. But it’s not.

The reason is that during elementary and middle school our mind breaks into two parts: the conscious and subconscious. The subconscious is the part that controls our behavior. It’s our oldest and dearest friend, concerned only with our well-being and happiness. The challenge is that it prefers the experiences that we survive (even the frightening ones) and is anxious about the unknown. It resists the attempts of the conscious mind to create change. Because the subconscious is “seven times more powerful than you think,” it normally wins the battle. 

Sometimes change is necessary, of course. To minimize danger, the subconscious considers change under the safest conditions: sleep. The body is inactive and the conscious mind disabled while the new behavior is imagined in dreams. If the dreams play out positively, the subconscious may try the new behavior in waking life. If that works out, the behavior often is accepted as a known and is available for future use.

A Comfy Client

In hypnotherapy, I facilitate a direct dialog between your conscious and subconscious minds. We begin the session by talking about your conscious behavior and discuss suggestions. After guiding you into hypnosis, I’ll offer your consciously accepted suggestions to your subconscious. Your conscious mind will monitor the dialog, and I’ll watch for signals in the body that tell whether the subconscious is comfortable with the suggestions.

In many cases, we also suggest that the subconscious release unwanted fears and motivations, through the venting dreams that we have just before waking up in the morning.

Between sessions, you go about your life and observe whether and how your behavior has changed. As you learn, new ideas and opportunities will come to mind. This is the where the next session starts, and the cycle continues until your goal is met.

Conclusion…