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 5

Sex

Of all the paradoxes of human behavior, none is greater than that the act most enhanced by love is driven by the emotions most likely to disrupt our relationships and corrupt our behavior.

Considering animals, nature would appear wise in ensuring that physically mature individuals are driven to leave the family group. As well as preventing the weakness of inbreeding, dispersal ensures that good genes spread.

Unfortunately, in people physical maturity comes a decade before psychological maturity. The brain adapts as we age, adding new parts as we learn to relate with family, friends and community. The highest skill is altruism – the ability to imagine “walking in someone’s shoes” and to act for their benefit. The part of the brain that supports altruism doesn’t form until our mid-twenties (if then).

The sex drive, of course, comes with puberty, shortly after turning ten. In boys, testosterone drives aggression and the growth of muscles to back it up. In girls, estrogen engenders bonding and the sensitivity to manipulate emotions. In both, the ecstatic thrills that swept through the whole body in childhood are focused in the sex organs. Unless released, those urges build, disrupting sleep. Exhaustion leads to irritability, sowing tension among family, friends and community. The immature brain rarely recognizes these defects, tending rather to project fault upon others.

Fortunately in modern society elementary school prepares children with conditioning to pursue self-improvement through education. As long as the teen achieves some academic success, school acts as a brake on serious misbehavior. Other supervised group activities – such as sports, scouting, and religion – also provide adolescents positive outlets for their energy and the opportunity to practice adult roles.

Sleep habits also change among adolescents. The sleep cycle delays by as much as three hours, giving youth time at the end of the day to develop relationships free from adult supervision. During the deepest stages of sleep, the brain sheds connections. The thought patterns that are preserved are those that support success among peers.

Given the biological drives of puberty, we shouldn’t be surprised that success with peers is often driven by sexual attraction. Unless confronted, this is a deep subconscious lesson that comes to the fore whenever our relationships are dissatisfying. Since sexual urges facilitated separation from parents, they are often indulged by adults separating from spouse, children or employers.

The well-adjusted adolescent explores social roles, entering adulthood with a well-formed identity that reflects their natural strengths and skills. Less fortunate peers are hobbled with role confusion, a problem that may lead to career and relationship hopping. Role confusion may be heightened by parental over-involvement, either during adolescence or as a hold-over from childhood.

For those suffering from role confusion, therapy guides them through experiences to reach a rational choice of role. Pre-hypnosis dialog reveals negative self-talk and builds positive expectations. In hypnosis, a positive self-image is implanted to encourage the subconscious to allow the chosen role to emerge. Subsequent sessions reinforce those motivations until the client reaches a conclusion about the role. If unsatisfactory, accomplishments are celebrated and reinforced, and another role is pursued.

Almost universally, young adults carry wounds from the chaotic romantic collisions of adolescence. Sexual attraction forms in the right side of brain, which reaches its subconscious conclusions as much as a second before the conscious mind realizes that a potential mate has been encountered. Given the power of sexual desire, the conscious mind usually proceeds to rationalize the attraction, projecting imaginary virtues on the new crush. When reality collides with fantasy and the relationship tanks, we awake with bruised self-confidence and – particularly when sex was part of the romance – wounded self-esteem.

Along with educating clients about relationship complementarity (more in the next post in this series), the primary goal of therapy is to reawaken romantic confidence. A wounded romantic partner is a defensive romantic partner. When both partners are wounded, after the “honeymoon” a relationship tilts rapidly into mutual disdain. Therapy in this case is like role confusion therapy, rebuilding confidence in our ability to heal from heartbreak while restoring the motivation to be our authentic selves. The only wrinkle is that the absent partner may attempt (consciously or subconsciously) to undermine progress. While many hypnotherapists can provide general guidance regarding relationship patterns and effective communication, to deal with interpersonal dynamics, a licensed marriage and family therapist (MFT) must be brought into the therapy.

Most seriously, overly demanding parental expectations can cause teens to rebel against the changes of puberty. Subconsciously, the perfect princess may seize upon an eating disorder to prevent menstruation. Insecure adolescents may use insomnia to delay changes in the brain. Such syndromes require specialized therapy in collaboration with licensed practitioners of medicine and psychology.

Part 1 || Part 4 | Part 6