Prepared enough to be spontaneous


Midway through one of my neuroscience lectures, I come to the topic of sleep disorders. I've given this lecture several times in the past, and so I haven't prepared much before this particular class. "The next kind of disorder we'll talk about is ...." I look at my notes and see Somnambulism.  "The next kind of disorder is called Som..NAHM..BOHH- lism".  As I struggle to get the syllables out, the class discovers how unfamiliar I am with this term for sleepwalking. A moment passes, and I chuckle at my own foolishness. This seems to give them license to laugh as well, because they do. And I just keep moving ahead.  (Adelante!)

There are hazards to being under-prepared.  But can you be over-prepared? The other day, I gave a lecture I'd recently worked on a lot, adding new material, tightening up the organization.  At the end of the lecture, I had the disappointing feeling that it had come off stiff, not very interesting. My immediate thought was that I'd over-prepared.

But now I'm not so sure.  With all the recent reorganization and new material added, I was lecturing over relatively unfamiliar terrain.   With all these changes, I wasn't relaxed enough to improvise. My mind was still consciously working out the material. 

When you're very familiar with something, you can be more relaxed and creative with it. For the lectures that I've given many times, where I know the material to the bone, I know where I'm going and what I want to get across as soon as I start.  I feel confident that I can get the ideas across clearly and so I approach them in a looser, more relaxed way.  Sometimes I can think about the material from a fresh perspective as I'm presenting it. You have to be well prepared in order to wing it.

This is definitely true with jazz improvisation. If I know the chord progressions of a song well enough to play them without thinking, and if I have the jazz harmony under my belt, I'm more free to improvise and be creative. Enough 'preparation' allows you to perform spontaneously.  Same with language.  We no longer need to think about the words we choose and so we can use language in a spontaneous manner. Good luck doing that with a second language you're still trying to master!

A part of the brain, the basal ganglia, has the job of automatizing behaviors. Not just motor behaviors like how to ride a bicycle, but also cognitive behaviors like playing music, speaking, and (I assume) describing the fundamentals of neuroscience.  Well acquired knowledge of the piano, recognizing chess positions, using language, all of these eventually fall into the domain of the basal ganglia, which processes and stores information unconsciously.  Once the basal ganglia has mastered the material, higher brain regions can access it in a flexible manner.  You use both the basal ganglia and the "higher" cortical brain areas when you consciously and creatively make use of knowledge that you've stored unconsciously.  But that's for next time.

Uncovering suppressed memories II


Is there therapeutic value to recalling buried memories?

Freud thought so.  Of course, a memory may be unconscious for decades simply because nothing brings it to mind.  But psychoanalysts are more interested in the memory that is unconscious for a reason; buried in order to avoid emotional pain that might come from bringing it to mind.  A repressed memory, from a psychoanalytic view, can exert an unconscious effect on one's behavior, thoughts, and emotions, and interfere with one's daily satisfaction and functioning.  From this point of view, it is therapeutic to become conscious of the repressed memory and to become aware of the reason the memory was repressed.  There is value in making the 'unconscious conscious'.

I recently talked to my colleague Paul Wachtel about how psychoanalysts think about this today.   Paul, a therapist and member of our clinical faculty, described a more contemporary take on the topic.  A key issue is whether or not we remain open to new experiences so that we can update our views about the world and interact with it more effectively.

A problem, in the case of the repressed memory, is that if we don't allow ourselves to think about the painful early experience, we never get to re-interpret it from an adult perspective.    The memory becomes 'sealed off' from integration with new experiences.  We get stuck with a view of the world that we may have formulated as a child, and this limits our ability to interact effectively with the world around us.
But we can get stuck in other ways too.  I mentioned an anecdote in an earlier post (one I heard from Paul) about a guy who decided early in life that people don't help you out. One day, his car runs out of gas about a mile from a gas station. He needs to walk to the station and ask an attendant to give him a small container of gas so he can get his car going. As he's walking toward the station, he's getting madder and madder as he imagines the attendant refusing to give him the can of gas. By the time he gets to the station and the attendant asks him what he wants, he says "Screw you". He doesn't get the gas, and his assumption that 'people don't help you out' is strengthened.  He never gets a chance to update his expectations.  That anecdote is an example of being stuck with a point of view, not necessarily because of a repressed memory, but because your expectations influence the ways you behave. And the inflexibility of your behavior limits your ability to update your expectations. 

Maybe the guy's view of the world stems from early experiences.   Maybe he repressed those early memories; or maybe he thinks about them every day.  In either case, he's stuck because his expectations prevent him from behaving in a way that could possibly bring about new and different experiences.  He doesn't get to update his views.

Why does a person get stuck thinking and behaving in ways that prevent enjoyment of life? Can the person be encouraged to re-examine his views, and perhaps more important, to act more flexibly so that he can allow new experiences to shape his views of the world?

Uncovering suppressed memories


I walk down Broadway and pass a bar I used to go to.  Looking in the window, I remember that they used to have an open-mic night once a week where musicians would test out songs they'd written, and comedians would try out new material. It was great because the performers were supportive of one another. As I walk by, memories I hadn't thought of for over ten years come to my mind.  

A key idea in psychoanalysis is that there is therapeutic value to uncovering subconscious memories: to make the unconscious conscious. Of course they're not talking about memories like mine from that bar.  They're not referring to memories that are dormant, but capable of becoming conscious given the right retrieval cues (like peeking through the windows of a bar).  They're speaking of a memory that is buried, suppressed for some reason or another, perhaps because its painful or embarrassing. The very act of bringing the memory to consciousness is supposed to have therapeutic value. Maybe it does.

Not all psychological approaches are centered around uncovering buried memories. For instance Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and its offshoot Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focus mostly on the thoughts and beliefs that guide our behavior today. Say that Joe's anxiety comes from his belief that he MUST succeed at every task he undertakes or else he's no good.  He feels that if he were to do poorly and disappoint someone, it would be AWFUL.   REBT and CBT are directed toward helping him challenge and change his irrational beliefs. "Where is it written that you MUST succeed perfectly at everything?" "What evidence is there to support this belief?"  "Why would it be AWFUL if someone were disappointed?"  Recognizing that there's no firm foundation for these beliefs, Joe can (with time and effort) replace them with more rational beliefs.  Joe would very much like to succeed at certain things. There's no arguing with that.  But if he were to fail at those things, it wouldn't make him 'no good' or a 'loser'. By replacing his irrational beliefs with rational ones, his anxiety diminishes and he becomes better able to focus on achieving his goals, rather than judging himself at each step along the way.

Maybe Joe's anxiety-inducing concerns stem from an early childhood experience.  From the REBT/CBT view, even if Joe were lucky enough to uncover the memory of that experience (and can one ever be sure which memory or memories were really formative?), there's no guarantee that the process would be greatly therapeutic.  Would Joe suddenly realize, "Oh that's why I'm so afraid of failure!" and walk out of the therapist's office a new man?  Even when people do experience a sudden catharsis of that sort, it doesn't mean that they can expect a lasting life change.  From the REBT/CBT perspective, it's more valuable to directly challenge the beliefs that are causing difficulties for you in your daily life, rather than playing detective of the past.

But what really interests me is that even within psychoanalytic circles, among those who have adopted Freud's views of the unconscious, there are changing ideas about the value of making unconscious memories conscious. But that's for the next post.

Pushback against my last post -- Is organizing leisure time necessarily "neurotic"?


I've gotten some pushback from my last post.  I wrote about organizing leisure time, and pronounced my verdict on it: neurotic.

A woman I know schedules every minute of her waking day.   If she could, I bet she'd plan how much time to spend in REM compared to other stages of sleep.  Unfortunately for her, the prefrontal cortex is off-line while we sleep, and so she lacks the neural circuits necessary to keep her sleep-time activities moving according to plan.

But when her daily workday is done, she pulls out her scheduler to see what's next.  Weekends? Miraculously planned down to the minute.  Vacations? Perfectly optimized for maximum activities.  She may not relax or have many spontaneous moments, but she's the most productive vacationer I know.  When I think about "organizing leisure time", I think of her.  In part, she motivated the last post. 

Here's the pushback:
Say you schedule a movie into your calendar. On the day of the show, you estimate how long it takes to get to the theater, and leave home early enough to get tickets and refreshments before the film begins. Isn't that organizing leisure time?  Yes.  Neurotic? No.

What if you block out next Sunday on your calendar, maybe next Friday afternoon as well. Don't schedule any appointments during those periods so the time will be all yours.  Isn't that using organization to protect your leisure time? Yes.  Seem neurotic? Nope.

Can organization and planning sometimes be worthwhile tools to bring to bear on leisure time?

Say "Uncle."