Feature Articles

War is harder on soldiers who kill

11/30/2009

Soldiers are no less human for wearing a uniform, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that new research shows that soldiers who kill tend to have far more difficult lives than soldiers who don’t. 

That’s the conclusion of a new report produced on Vietnam Veterans by UC San Francisco and the VA Medical center.  Even compared to other combat veterans, soldiers who killed (or think they killed) are more likely to suffer long-term from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, violent behavior, and other psychological problems. 

To Stanley Krippner, a psychology faculty member at Saybrook and co-author of the book Haunted by Combat, this isn’t a surprise:  treating traumatic situation in a “one-size fits all” kind of way will never account for the unique experiences each soldier takes back with them from battle.  However you slice it, killing someone is not like being shot at - no two experiences are the same.

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"Smart pills" have stupid problems

11/11/2009

An avalanche starts with a single pebble, and scientists are now warning us that they’re seeing the next social avalanche begin:  the age of neuro-enhancers … pills to make us smarter … is here.

You see it in large numbers of college students taking the stimulant Adderall to do better on term papers.  You see it in pilots and doctors and taxi drivers who work long shifts taking Ritalin to help them concentrate.  You see it in the promise of new drugs that will even further enhance “mental performance.” 

An informal poll conducted last year by the journal Nature found that one in five readers of that scientific publication had taken drugs off-label to improve “their focus, concentration, or memory” – and a third said they would likely give “smart drugs” to their kids if they learned that other parents were doing so.

Call it neuro-enhancement, call it “cosmetic neurology,” call it drug addiction – but in the future, we’re warned, if you’re not popping pills to make you smarter, then you’ll be left behind.

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Treating "despair" like "depression" only makes things worse

11/10/2009

“(I)n an age when all psychic life is being understood in terms of neurotransmitters,” wrote Gordon Marino on the New York Times website, “the art of introspection has become passé.”

That’s a sentiment that the sentimentalists among us can get behind, but the hard-headed will surely ask “So what?”  What does it matter if introspection is one more form of “technology” that goes by the wayside, like the horse and buggy, like letter writing, and like card catalogs?  Don’t we have better “mental technology” now in the form of anti-depressants and fMRI scans?

Well, not exactly.  For one thing, the “medicalization” of the mind is leading to a confusion of categories:  “depression,” as a medical condition, Marino suggests, has become too broad, now encompassing other, unrelated, feelings – like despair.

“Depression” is what comes over us when we’re feeling blue, possibly (sometimes) as a result of chemical imbalances – but “despair” is what comes over us when we have a spiritual imbalance, when we have failed to understand who we really are, and live in denial.  Marino writes:

“(D)espair is not correlated with any particular set of emotions but is instead marked by a desire to get rid of the self, or put another way, by an unwillingness to become who you fundamentally are. This unwillingness often takes the form of flat out wanting to be someone else.”

That’s something we’ve all felt, that can’t possibly be “cured” by drugs in any meaningful sense of the term. 

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Shakespeare in ... lust?

10/28/2009

It’s a headline guaranteed to make any romantic smile:  “Love, but not lust, inspires creativity.”

That’s the conclusion of a new study reported in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

In it, researchers asked 60 university students to imagine either casual sex with someone they were attracted to but not in love with, or a long walk with their beloved partner, and then put them through a small battery of tests that required logical thinking, and additional tests that required creative thinking.

Sure enough, the students who were primed with romantic feelings did better on the creative tasks. 

Sadly for the romantics, Steve Pritzker, who co-chairs Saybrook’s Creativity Studies program, says this research doesn’t really make a case that love is a stimulant to creativity. 

“It’s pretty interesting stuff,” he acknowledges.  “But are a group of university students really a sufficient sample to make that conclusion?”  Additionally, he notes, no baseline tests were taken to measure creative skills before the experiment:  it’s possible that one group was simply more creative that the other, even when they weren’t thinking about long romantic walks.

“And,” Pritzker adds, “how do we know that the extent of their romantic musings really did stop at long romantic walks?  That nothing else happened in their minds?  Are we at least a little suspicious?”

That question gets at the heart of the matter for Pritzker:  it’s very difficult to separate “love” from “lust” sometimes.

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How to solve a crisis before it happens

10/28/2009

 We know times are tough when eight New Jersey cities, famous for their independence, are looking to consolidate services and share resources.  In fact, all along the East Coast, cities, towns, and villages that have been independent for hundreds of years are staring down the barrel of the financial crisis and asking if more efficient use of government resources can save them.

Which is a great question – but it’s also one that they could have asked years ago, when real estate prices where high, resources were plentiful, and there were no financial crises limiting their options. 

That’s a head slapping fact for their residents, but it’s also a problem that anyone who’s worked in organizations is familiar with:  they only prepare for the next crisis after it’s already hit. 

Can we do better?  Is there a way that organizations can look at ways to improve themselves before there’s a crisis? 

“Yes, and that’s good leadership and good management practice,” says Gloria Burgess, a prominent business consultant and member of the LIOS faculty.  “But having said that, not many companies do it.”

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How to love your work more than your paycheck

10/13/2009

Are we falling into a trap of believing that our work, and indeed, our lives, should always be fascinating and all-consuming? Are we somehow lacking if we’re bored at times or buried under routine tasks or failing to challenge ourselves at every turn?

So asks New York Times writer Alina Tugend, in a recent article asking what it means to “be passionate” about your job, and whether it’s a faire tale of the modern work world:  nice to imagine, but not really possible.

Keima Sheriff can speak to that.  An Organizational Systems student at Saybrook, she founded the Institute for Balance Restoration (IBR), a consulting company that builds stronger organizations by building stronger, and more passionate, individuals.  Keima also just got an experience in practicing what she preaches, when she became interim CEO of a Pennsylvania non-profit.

Cookman Alternative Learning Community is a small, alternative school that helps kids the educational system has given up on get an education and graduate into a better future.  It was also no exception to the freeze on government payments when the state of Pennsylvania couldn’t agree on a budget.
Suddenly left with an organization whose employees she couldn’t pay, Keima called a staff meeting in July.

“I gathered the staff together and said ‘my gut is telling me that even if the state comes up with a budget by October, we won’t have money by December to start paying you,’” she recalls.  “‘But we have these kids, and we know that if we send them anywhere else they will not graduate on time.  So, guys, what do you want to do?”

The Cookman employees decided that they would all get other jobs, and then donate their labor as full time volunteers until the state passed a budget that could pay them to come back again. 

Why?  Because they cared for the kids, and they loved what they did.

“So my staff have gotten other jobs and then, based on their availability, we’ve cobbled together a schedule that they can use to run the organization,” Keima says.  “I have a teacher who comes in after five, one who has to leave at 3, one who can only come in three days a week … and they love their work so much that they’re doing this, for these kids.” 

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Saybrook scholars intimatly connected to the publication of Jung's "Red Book"

09/29/2009

There’s a game we’ve all played: if you could have dinner with any historical figure, living or dead, who would it be? 
 
What if you could peek into their minds?  What if you could stare at their self-awareness, and experience their unconscious the way they did?

We will soon have that glimpse into the mind of one of the great explorers of the psyche:  Carl Jung, whose personal diary of his struggle with the unconscious, his “Red Book,” will be published next month by the Philemon Foundation, a non-profit group of scholars and analysts dedicated to making available some 50 volumes of Jung’s unpublished works. 

Of all of them, the Red Book is deemed the most important. 

“Jung was one of the great spiritual and psychological pilgrims of our time, and his ultimate project, at which he felt a failure, was to convince people of the reality of the psyche, and the reality of a spiritual energy which moves through all of us,” says James Hollis, who heads Saybrook’s Jungian Studies program and is the Vice-President of the Philemon Foundation.  “Essentially, The Red Book is Jung's personal journal and voyage of discovery during a turbulent mid-life passage.   He was overrun with psychic material, even while maintaining familial and professional life.   He chose to engage that material, rather than repress it, or succumb to it, and thereby developed the practice of "active imagination," intra-psychic dialogue, and a deepened engagement with the archetypal field of human experience.”

Saybrook psychology faculty member Eugene Taylor, who is also on the board of the Philemon Foundation, says that the Red Book “is not merely a book about Jung’s thoughts, but the very blueprint for all his thinking and the foundation of his psychology over the lifetime that ensued. It is bound to change Jungian scholarship in profound ways for all time.”

What will we see when we look over the efforts of Carl Jung to understand his own mind?  So far all that’s been released to the public are photos of some of the gorgeous otherworldly illustrations Jung included on many pages.  The only man who knows the text is the Philemon Foundation’s general editor Sonu Shamdasani, a Distinguished Consulting Faculty Member at Saybrook University and the man who’s translating the Red Book into English, along with providing over 1,000 footnotes.  

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The hard road to real health care reform

09/29/2009

Marie DiCowden describes her days right now as “crazy.”

A faculty member in Saybrook’s Graduate College of Mind-Body Medicine, DiCowden also serves as Vice-President for Public Policy of the National Academies of Practice, a national coalition of medical practitioners interested in improving the healthcare system. She’s also the Executive Director of the Biscayne Institutes of Health and Living, a community-based healthcare center in Florida.

That expertise puts her on the forefront of the fight to reform America’s healthcare system … and she says it’s difficult.

“I am back and forth between Florida and D.C. right now,” she says.  “I just got home yesterday and I’m leaving again.  We will get reform … but honestly it is anybody's guess what will happen to keep insurance companies accountable.  Quite possibly nothing, unless we hold the senators and congresspeople accountable.”

DiCowden isn’t the only one who thinks that the lobbying power of the insurance industry is keeping reform away from health care. 

Craig Holman is the Legislative Representative for Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer advocacy organization in Washington D.C., and a leading expert on government ethics.  He helps run an internship program for Saybrook students to work with his organization.  He says that insurance industry lobbying has been a “critical factor” in hobbling the healthcare reform Americans voted for in November. 

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Facebook Diplomacy means harder work - fewer wars

07/28/2009

Recently Robert Faris, research director at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, made a distressing prediction to the National Endowment for Democracy:  international diplomacy is going to get harder than it used to be.

The reason?  Not terrorism (though sure) or fighting over increasingly scarce resources (though yet):  but rather, social media like Facebook.

As more people in different countries get on social media, Faris said, more people in different countries talk directly to each other, and this virtual citizen diplomacy makes it very difficult for diplomats to control the conversation.

"The role of diplomacy given social media is going to be more complicated than it used to be," Faris said.

Nor are diplomats the only ones trying to figure the implications of the new technology out.  Gail Ervin, a Saybrook PhD student in Human Science who works as an environmental mediator, says that “at this point, most mediators are just learning the basics of social media, and we are far from experiencing the promise of it regarding reducing conflicts.”

“I think we are at the dawn of a grand global experiment regarding these questions,” Ervin added, “and there are only inquiries at this point, no answers.”

However, according to Joel Federman, who directs Saybrook’s concentration in Social Transformation, there is reason for optimism.  More people talking to each other directly means more people reacting to actual human beings, instead of crude stereotypes and propaganda.  Diplomacy might get harder, but more human relationships across borders means it might get better.

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That sudden, awful, impulse you just had might mean something after all

07/28/2009

Let’s admit it: we’ve all had some really bad impulses. 

Shouting at a lecturer, running in traffic, stealing an inadvisable kiss … who hasn’t had a sudden, mad, urge to do the unthinkable? 

It’s a basic fact of human life, and once again evolutionary psychology is claiming to have explained it.  Turns out, it’s a survival mechanism.  Who would have guessed?

In a recent paper published in Science, Harvard researches say these urges are “ironic processes of control” that help us tame our anti-social impulses. 

“These monitoring processes keep us watchful for errors of thought, speech, and action and enable us to avoid the worst thing in most situations,” the authors write.

In a post on the New York Times’ “Mind” blog, author Benedict Carey expanded on the idea that these self-destructive impulses evolved as a way of helping us manage our anti-social tendencies.

Perverse impulses seem to arise when people focus intensely on avoiding specific errors or taboos. The theory is straightforward: to avoid blurting out that a colleague is a raging hypocrite, the brain must first imagine just that; the very presence of that catastrophic insult, in turn, increases the odds that the brain will spit it out.

“We know that what’s accessible in our minds can exert an influence on judgment and behavior simply because it’s there, it’s floating on the surface of consciousness,” said Jamie Arndt, a psychologist at the University of Missouri.

So there you go, question answered, problem solved, right? 

Maybe – unless you actually want to actually understand what’s going on in your mind, with your thoughts, and your impulses.  Then this theory has absolutely nothing to tell you.

In fact, says Saybrook faculty member Kirk Schneider, it’s a classic example of what Rollo May, in his book Psychology and the Human Dilemma, called "turning mountains into mole hills."

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