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Behind the Music: Psychology Edition

Many of you have probably heard about the show on VH1 called “Behind the Music.” This show tells us the juicy biographical facts about our favorite musicians, and while many people might not know  the specifics of Courtney Love’s drug abuse or LL Cool J’s troubled childhood, nobody is surprised when famous musicians have skeletons in their closets. However, what most people don’t know is that psychologists/psychiatrists also have sordid pasts.

Let us start with the most famous rock star of psychology, Sigmund Freud. Although his theories about the id, Oedipus complex, and psychoanalysis are well-known, his obsession with cocaine has been forgotten. Freud, an avid cocaine user, believed that nothing that felt so good could be bad. He decided that cocaine was a miracle drug and wrote a paper about the curative properties of this white powder. Fortunately for Freud, another cocaine connoisseur published a paper about the wonders of this drug before him, and although Freud was upset about it at the time, the author of the cocaine paper has long been forgotten while Freud is mentioned in every psychology textbook.

One his most famous theories is that every part of life has to do with sex. If you have a dream about riding on a train you might think that you have a subconscious desire to go on vacation, but Freud would say that you actually want to sleep with your mother. Freud saw sex in everything: Cigars, depression, sibling conflict. One might assume that someone this obsessed with sex was constantly copulating, after all he did have six children. However, the exact opposite is true. Freud was not a man of great wealth and he felt that having too many children would bankrupt him. Since he felt that coitus interruptus (known today as the “pull out method”) and masturbation were unhealthy, he abstained from all types of sex. Just like a hungry man sees hamburgers everywhere, Freud saw sexuality in all aspects of life.

It is not only Freud that had a questionable past. His opponent, Karen Horney, also had a closet full of skeletons. Horney took great offense to Freud’s theory about penis envy. She stated that if there are women who wish they had a penis, then there are men who wish they had a uterus. The transgendered population would probably agree with her! If her theory sounds a bit feminist too you, it’s because she is the creator feminine psychology. And if you are thinking she must have had bad experiences with men to become a feminine psychologist, you are also correct. She had a stern father for whom she felt little affection. Unfortunately, just like many other young women, she picked a husband that had the same bad qualities. After her marriage became unbearable, she separated from her husband and moved to another continent. It was during this time she became an advocate for feminine psychology.

Despite the fact that Horney’s father was an unpleasant man, Abraham Maslow would have gladly switched parents with her. His claim to fame was the “hierarchy of needs” pyramid. If you are unfamiliar with it, this pyramid states that you cannot have high self-esteem unless you have food, safety, and love in your life. Maslow must have realized how important these three things were because he was lacking all three while he was growing up. His father thought that he was ugly, and to ensure that Maslow never forgot this, he would announce it publicly. His mother kept the refrigerator locked and only opened it if she was in a good mood. Her punishments were needlessly cruel. One time she discovered that Maslow had sneaked some kittens inside the house, and instead of simply telling him that he has to put them back outside, she made him watch as she smashed their heads against the wall. Maslow should have named his pyramid “everything that was missing from my childhood.”

While Maslow probably wished that he never knew his father, Eric Erikson had an opposite desire. During his childhood, Erikson thought that the husband of his mother was his father, and he didn’t understand why he looked Scandinavian when both his parents were Jewish. This riddle was solved when he discovered his father was actually his stepfather. Most people know Erikson as the creator of psychosocial development; however, he is also the creator of identity statuses. As a person who struggled with his own identity (he even created his own last name), he wanted others to have a vocabulary to describe their identity crises.

It seems that both musicians and psychologists/psychiatrists become famous because they are able to transform their bad life experiences into something profitable. If Ozzy Osbourne didn’t take drugs and Abraham Maslow had loving parents, who knows how the music and psychology industry would have turned out. Perhaps the words of the famous psychiatrist Thomas Szasz (who didn’t make this post) are correct, “there is no psychology; there is only biography and autobiography.”


Don’t Forget

“Don’t forget” are words we often hear in our daily lives. Our spouses, bosses, parents, children, and even our friends constantly want us to remember something. Luckily, for most people the worst this phrase causes is mild annoyance, but for the unfortunate few who have dementia, these words are a cruel taunt.

The most famous type of dementia and the one  whose name strikes fear in the heart of anyone over 60 is Alzheimer’s. However, our world is filled with less known but equally potent mental decay syndromes. One of those syndromes is Korsakoff’s.

Korsakoff’s is caused by the lack of thiamine in the body, and this loss causes damage in the parts of the brain that are responsible for memory. People who suffer from this syndrome develop both anterograde and retrograde amnesia. This means that not only do they have difficulty remembering what happened ten years ago (retrograde amnesia), but they also cannot remember what happened ten days ago (anterograde amnesia). This lack of memory inhibits their ability to hold conversations, understand situations, or have an interest in any thing that needs a prolonged amount of concentration. Although people with this syndrome are able to retain the ability to think logically, since their anterograde amnesia is so severe, they are not able to figure out the solutions to any problems that take more than a few minutes solve. This disease, just like Alzheimer’s , is incurable and eventually leads to death.

However, unlike Alzheimer’s, it is a 100% preventable. The loss of thiamine occurs because of chronic alcoholism (although extreme dieting also affects thiamine production). When I say chronic I don’t mean that week in Vegas you don’t remember or those four years of college where you learned to concoct the perfect hangover breakfast. A person who suffers from Korsakoff’s has to spend decades drinking before alcohol begins to erase their memory. People often say they drink to forget, but they usually don’t mean forever.

This syndrome was discovered by one of Russia’s first neuropsychiatrists, Sergei Korsakoff. He discovered it while studying the effects of alcohol on the nervous system and luckily he had many subjects to observe. Despite Russians being famous for their alcohol consumption, very few  suffer from this syndrome.  This is because a person has to be genetically predisposed to this particular dementia to be afflicted with it. It seems that just as many long-term smokers can avoid lung cancer, chronic alcoholics can escape memory loss.

In a world filled with uncertainty, it is pleasant to discover that at least one disease is preventable by our actions. So if you are suffering from alcoholism and the pressures of family and society are not sufficient enough reasons to quit, perhaps the fear of dementia will be the final straw that causes you to order a coke without the Vodka. Memory is more valuable than money and the  famous words of Thomas Fuller say it best, “memory is the treasure house of the mind wherein the monuments thereof are kept and reserved”

How to be Happy

When I type in the words “how to be happy” in the Amazon search engine, I get 156,023 results. It seems that the billions of people that populate this earth suffer from unhappiness. I find it extraordinary that although humanity was able to invent the internet, vaccinations, and put a man on the moon, the cure for unhappiness still remains elusive.  I want to discuss one of the many men who have written about the solution to sadness, Viktor Frankl.

Now you may ask why this man’s theory should be any more important than the 156, 022 others that tried to solve this same problem. The answer is because this man lived in a concentration camp, lost his wife and parents during the holocaust, and was still able to live a joyous life.

Before we talk about his theories on happiness, I want to mention a few biographical facts. By the time WWII was in full swing, he was already a prominent psychiatrist. After the war, he picked up the pieces of his shattered life, and was able to continue being a success in professional and personal matters. He married again, had children, wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning, and founded logotherapy (a subject for another post). Even during his leisure time he enjoyed life by spending his days hiking in mountains.

Frankl outlined his solution to happiness in his book. He believed that the key to living a fulfilling life was the creation of a personal goal one could strive to complete. Even though these goals for people often included important matters such as marriage and job acquisition, a trivial goal such as baking a delicious chocolate pie would also work.  Say a person lost their job; their spouse left them, and they cannot think of a reason to get up in the morning. Frankl’s solution would be to find a goal that the person could focus on, a goal that they could take steps every day to complete. This person decides to make it their goal to run a 5k. All of a sudden their life has meaning again, and they are getting up every morning because the first step to running a 5k is being in a vertical position. This new goal allows this person to feel happiness again. And a happy person is also more likely to figure out solutions to improve their marital and employment situation.

Frankl cemented this theory both with his experience in the concentration camp and the hourly sessions he had with a variety of patients. There is no need to explain why Frankl’s life was horrible in a concentration camp, and the way he was able to deal with every day atrocities was by setting a goal for himself. His goal was to eventually reunite with his wife and the only way this reunification could be possible was if he stayed alive. Frankl writes in his book that it was not the completion of this goal that was important, but the steps he took to work on it every day.

After the war, Frankl resumed his vocation of talking to people battling depression. He noticed that a person’s circumstances did not have a correlation with a person’s state of mind. In fact, some of his gloomiest patients had loving families, financial security, and never experienced any tragedies. He realized the reason these people were sad was because their lives were aimless. Once these patients were able to find a purpose for their lives, their unhappiness would vanish with the wind. Now you may wonder how Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, was able to listen to the mundane problems of bored housewives and spoiled children without getting annoyed. He answers this question in his book. Frankl described the scope of one’s problems as the size of a room, and depression as the gas that would fill it. A room filled with gas would suffocate a person regardless of its size. Frankl reiterated that the best way to get rid of the gas was to create a personal goal. When asked what aspiration gave his life meaning, he would say that the desire to help others figure out how to be happy was the goal that provided purpose and cheerfulness in his life.

Will his theory help everyone attain contentment? Of course not. If it did, then bookstores would not be filled with large self-help sections. However, when a man is able to overcome an enormous loss and is still able to enjoy life, he should at least be listened to. I finish this post with the words of Viktor Frankl, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”

The C-Word

No, not that word! I’m thinking about the integral C of CBT, the cognition of cognitive behavior therapy. Before we explore CBT, let’s take a few moments to think of the BT without the C. Many people have a basic understanding of behavior therapy. However, just in case you don’t, let us examine how behavior therapy works.

Say a wife wants her husband to do the dishes. She can have sex with her husband every time he does the dishes, and this will cause the husband to associate dishes with conjugal fun. Sounds like the perfect plan, right? It would be the perfect plan if it wasn’t for the pesky C-word. A husband can use his cognitive skills to realize that he does not have to do the dishes to get sex. After all, physical intimacy is the glue that holds marriages together, and he would still be able to enjoy it even if the sink is over filling with dirty dishes. If a wife decides to only have sex with her husband if he does the dishes, then a dirty kitchen will become her smallest problem.

So this wife tries to figure out another way to get her husband more involved in kitchen chores. Before she can do this, she has to remember the rule her parents taught her when she was young. A rule she did not want to believe. “The only person you can change is yourself.” So the wife decides to apply behavior therapy to herself. She eats a piece of chocolate every time she does the dishes; therefore she has something to look forward to while she is scrubbing away dried spaghetti sauce. However, the pestilent C-word again gets in the way because this wife can also use her cognitive skills to realize that she can eat chocolate anytime she wants, and this fact causes her “after dishes chocolate” not to feel like a reward.

Since the C-word on its own has gotten in the way of her plans, it’s time to work with it and not in spite of it. Cognitive behavior therapy teaches us that the best way to change behavior is not with rewards and consequences, but by changing the way one thinks about the problem. Instead of thinking about the chore itself, the wife needs to ponder about why she does the dishes. She does the dishes because she enjoys the look of a spotless kitchen and she takes pride in the fact that her house is clean. Once she realizes the reasons behind her desire to do the dishes, she will stop viewing them as a chore she hates and wishes her husband would partake in. Instead, they become a task that needs to be completed to reach a goal that makes her happy. Although this was not the solution the wife originally wanted for her domestic dispute, it’s still a solution that keeps her satisfied.

After reading the example above it seems that CBT offers very obvious solutions; however, most problems tend to be much more complicated, and that is why people often seek a professional to help them figure out how to apply the C-word to their life in a constructive way. I will finish this post with a quote from one of the founding fathers of CBT, Albert Ellis. “You largely constructed your depression. It wasn’t given to you. Therefore, you can deconstruct it.”