Category Archives: psychology

05 Nov

If thy ‘ead offend thee, cut it off

The country is terribly short of shrinks.

One in ten consultant psychiatrist posts in England are currently unfilled in the NHS,according to a report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) and the number of unfilled posts has doubled in the past four years.

Wales is also struggling to fill posts, with vacancies of 9%, while Scotland and Northern Ireland have vacancy rates of 6% and 2% respectively.

The college called the vacancies “frankly alarming”  Prof Wendy Burn of the RCP, said the shortage means patients might be waiting months to see a psychiatrist, during which time they could be getting worse.

Professor Burn did not consider the distinct possibility that sufferers might get worse if they did see a psychiatrist. If you want to be a plumber, it helps if you’re a practical sort. Priests need to be religious. By the same token, many psychiatrists are more than a little mad.

I read the snooker champion Ronnie O’ Sullivan’s account of how, some years ago, he turned to a Freudian psychiatrist to help him overcome his depressions. Ronnie’s father was doing time for murdering Charlie Kray’s driver. The psychiatrist, having noted that Ronnie sometimes cued left-handed, asked him if his father had stabbed his victim with his left hand.  Ronnie’s comment on the psychiatrist’s question was: “It did me ‘ead in.”

There is a century old tradition of Freudian – or, as we say in English, Fraudian – psychiatry. And then between the wars there arose a fashion for Behaviourism. This is a science of the mind which does not think there is such a thing as a mind. So psychiatrists should study our behaviour which is defined exclusively in terms of stimulus and response – the famous S-R relation which the renowned Behaviourist B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) employed to teach rats the way out of mazes and pigeons to play table tennis.

(By the way, the “B.F.” stands for Burrhus Frederic – and not what you were thinking).

On this subject, Arthur Koestler commented: “Now that we have lost our souls, gone out of our minds and seem about to lose all consciousness, what is there left for psychologists to study? Professor Skinner’s answer is ‘Rats!’”

Similarly, the philosopher Peter Geach said, mockingly, “A Behaviourist knows he’s hungry when he observes himself running home for his lunch.” 

From phenobarbitone  – which I once heard mispronounced as “female baritone” – to Prozac, psychiatry has come up with a succession of wonder drugs. We were assured back in the 1960s that the new benzodiazepams such as Librium, Ativan and Valium – “mother’s little helpers” – so you see, it was the women who got to swallow the lion’s share – were without side effects and non-addictive. We now know that millions worldwide have been on these drugs for generations and can’t kick the habit. 

Scientific psychiatry brought forth many blessings. There was electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) – very popular in the 1950s and 1960s – which works by giving patients electric shocks to produce seizures which, it was hoped, might relieve the conditions of depression and mania. The treatment was typically administered to a patient three times a week for several weeks, very commonly to pregnant women and those going through the menopause. 71% of all patients treated with ECT are women. It is still being administered in NHS hospitals. Rosemary, sister to JFK, received this treatment and was incapacitated for the rest of her life. The distinguished New Zealand novelist Janet Frame was among countless others who suffered greatly owing to this procedure.

I suppose the mother and father of all treatments for mental disturbances is the frontal lobe lobotomy, named from two Greek words meaning “brain” and “slice.” The ultimate method, as Ronnie might say, of doin’ yer ‘ead in. Surgeons cut out part of the cortex. Again this is more often performed on women. Its inventor Antonio Muniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1949 for coming up with this little beauty. There is a vigorous campaign to have his award annulled.

Jesus famously quipped, “if thy hand offend thee, cut it off. If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.” – Mark 9:43ff. The lobotomists have gone one better than the Lord: “If thy head offend thee, cut it off.” 

You know, I’m only an uninstructed layman in these matters, but I just wonder if, rather than seek ever more ingenious ways to treat mentally deranged people, it might be better to try to create a saner world? 

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21 Aug

The Eclipse of the USA

The USA is about to be plunged into the darkness of a total lunar eclipse. Might this physical darkness be an outward and visible sign of a political darkness descending on that nation?

Ironically – weirdly – the last time a total eclipse occurred exclusively in the USA was in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence.

Is the belief in signs and portents only superstition, the stuff of astrologers, necromancers and soothsayers – something which we have discarded since the scientific Enlightenment?

Jesus said, “There shall be signs in the sun and in the moon and in the stars, and upon the earth distress of nations with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth.” (Luke 21: 25-26)

But he also said, “This is an evil generation; they seek a sign.” (Luke 11:29)

In other words, there will be signs but we’re not to look for them.

Jesus’ own birth was accompanied by the Bethlehem Star  (Matthew 2:2)

Shakespeare gives voice to the belief that events in the heavens prefigure or correspond in some way with events on earth and he says on Julius Caesar, “When beggars die, there are no comets seen: the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

In 1952 the analytical psychologist C.G. Jung and the Nobel physicist Wolfgang Pauli published a paper Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle in which they argued that there is another – “force” is the wrong word – another something expressing the interconnectedness of events. They gave examples and attempted an explanation:

The French writer Émile Deschamps claimed in his memoirs that, in 1805, he was treated to some plum pudding by a stranger named Monsieur de Fontgibu. Ten years later, the writer encountered plum pudding on the menu of a Paris restaurant and wanted to order some, but the waiter told him that the last dish had already been served to another customer, who turned out to be de Fontgibu. Many years later, in 1832, Deschamps was at a dinner and once again ordered plum pudding. He recalled the earlier incident and told his friends that only de Fontgibu was missing to make the setting complete – and in the same instant, the now-senile de Fontgibu entered the room.

Jung wrote, after describing such examples, “When coincidences pile up in this way, one cannot help being impressed by them – for the greater the number of terms in such a series, or the more unusual its character, the more improbable it becomes.”]

In his book Thirty Years That Shook Physics – The Story of Quantum Theory (1966), George Gamow writes about Wolfgang Pauli, who was apparently considered a person particularly associated with synchronicity events. Gamow whimsically refers to the “Pauli effect”, a mysterious phenomenon which is not understood on a purely materialistic basis, and probably never will be. The following anecdote is told:

“It is well known that theoretical physicists cannot handle experimental equipment; it breaks whenever they touch it. Pauli was such a good theoretical physicist that something usually broke in the lab whenever he merely stepped across the threshold. A mysterious event that did not seem at first to be connected with Pauli’s presence once occurred in Professor J. Franck’s laboratory in Göttingen. Early one afternoon, without apparent cause, a complicated apparatus for the study of atomic phenomena collapsed. Franck wrote humorously about this to Pauli at his Zürich address and, after some delay, received an answer in an envelope with a Danish stamp. Pauli wrote that he had gone to visit Bohr and at the time of the mishap in Franck’s laboratory his train was stopped for a few minutes at the Göttingen railroad station. You may believe this anecdote or not, but there are many other observations concerning the reality of the Pauli Effect!”

Bunkum or what? Or are there more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy? 

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26 Nov

How to get on the telly

What’s the best qualification to get to appear on TV? Certainly, to be a young woman with large breasts – or, in the case of Ed Balls, a middle aged man with the same. Belonging to a rock band might get you on BBC4. I remember when that channel was opened, the BBC advertised it as “a place to think.” Well, they’ve given up thinking now as some evenings – particularly Fridays – are given over entirely to pop music. You could change your career and become a supermodel or a Premiership footballer. If all else fails, try dressing yourself up and pretending to be David Attenborough or Stephen Fry.

None of these devices – not even the last – is guaranteed to work.

There is, however, one foolproof route to success: have one of your relatives murdered. It helps if it’s a teenage son or daughter or a devoted husband in his forties.

There have been a few successes using this method this week alone, but respect for the dead and sympathy for the bereaved forbids mention of their names.

You would think that after such a grievous loss, the bereaved relative would wish most of all for privacy, to be left alone to reflect, even to pray, and to try to come to terms with the terrible event. That’s what used to happen. But now we live in the days prophesied by Andy Warhol when “Everyone is famous for fifteen minutes.”

After the verdict is announced, the fulminating widow appears outside the court and denounces “the scumbag” who killed her husband, whom she describes as “my rock.”

Or the grieving father faces the TV cameras beside “a roadside shrine” and describes his eight year old daughter – murdered by an “animal” – as “lovely bubbly.”

All these televised grievers have completely mastered the psychobabble that the media requires. the verdict has all;owed them to “achieve closure” and so now they can “move on.”

There is something inappropriate, mawkish and frankly creepy about all this. Grief is not a suitable subject for display and publicity. And the best way to assuage your grief is by not advertising it.

Kierkegaard said, “There is a sign in Copenhagen which forbids spitting in the street. I wish there were a similar prohibition on sentimentality.”

But in our blatant therapeutic culture, fame trumps all.

I think it was Anthony Burgess who commented that the highest accolade of our times is “You woz on the telly!”

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28 Oct

All in the mind?

The prevailing wind is a westerly. That’s why we get so much muck blown over from the USA. The current bit of muck is Halloween. This was never popularly observed until comparatively recently and in one sense it epitomises our infantilisation. It demonstrates the truth of G.K. Chesterton’s remark: “When men stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.” It says much about the sort of society we are when, instead of celebrating All Saints’ Day on 1st November, we keep Halloween (All Hallows’ Eve) the night before.

Some Roman Catholics and many Evangelical Christians become very exercised by this celebration of Halloween and warn that it can lead to the worship and glorification of evil. I suppose in a few extreme cases it could, but the real purpose of this “festival” is to make a lot of money out of it by selling masks, costumes and other such tat – as with that other fatuity, Fathers’ Day.

It’s gormless – but no more gormless than the countless celebrations of gormlessness that we go in for these days in our dumbed-down junk culture. For instance, this morning there was a serious discussion between supposed adults on The Today Programme about emojis – those silly faces and doodles which people append to their communications on the varieties of antisocial media. Particularly puerile was the fact that they were talking about designing emojis for older people. So there was one with bingo numbers for eyes and another with a reprimanding stare. is that what oldies do, then: get their heads down in the bingo hall and look up again to scowl at their neighbours?

Our infantilisation is now surely complete.

But there is something nasty about even a pretend celebration of the dark powers – whether you believe that devils exist or not. What certainly exists – and exists very powerfully – is the human imagination. And it is but a short step from pretend to reality – as we notice when violent images watched on TV stir up some people to go out and commit violence in real life. Only last week, a teenage girl was so distressed by a horror series she watched on TV that she did away with herself.

Why can’t people get it into their head that mental events are  real?

St Augustine taught that psychological reality is spiritual reality and moral reality. He said that, if you want to acquire a particular virtue – say kindness – you should pretend that you have this virtue already. Try doing little acts of kindness and you will gradually become a kind person: in the same way that (given a fair wind) you will be able to play the piano if you practise for long enough. Augustine, the master psychologist, actually said, “You must become a hypocrite.” Hypocrite is the old Greek word for an actor.

Be careful which parts you act out then. Choose warily the stuff you want to pretend or to practise.

Be careful what you wish for – you might get it!

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