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Here is the short, half day course on Empathy, Stress (Reduction) and Neural Science delivered at the Joe Palombo Center for Neuroscience at the Institute for Clinical Social Work. The image depicted is the punchline to a Richard Feynman (physicist) joke about the cosmos – “It’s turtles all the way down” – in the case of neuroscience “It is neurons all the way down!” Granted that the joke is not funny if one has to explain it, the video provides all the background you need to laugh (one way or the other!)
You can also watch directly on Youtube by cutting and pasting into your command line without the dash
A famous person once said: “Empathy is oxygen for the soul.” So if one is feeling shortness of breath, maybe one needs expanded empathy! This course will connect the dots between empathy and neuroscience (“brain science”). For example, empathic responsiveness releases the compassion hormone oxytocin, which blocks the stress hormone cortisol. [This is an over-simplification, but a compelling one.] Reduced stress correlates to reduced risk of such life style disorders as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weak immune system, depression, and the common cold.
The session engages each of the following modules in the discussion segment, including suggested readings. Except for the first two topics, we can take them in any order and the participants will get to select:
- This is your mind on neuroscience – mirror neurons: do they exist, and if not, so what?
- Sperry on the split brain: the information is in the system: how to get at it
- The neuroscience of trauma – and how empathy gives us access to it
- MRI research: as when Galileo looked through the telescope, a whole new world opens
Image: The punch line is “turtles – all the way down” – well, likewise – “neurons – all the way down.”
Presenter: Lou Agosta, PhD, is the author of three scholarly, academic books on empathy, including A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery (Routledge 2015). He has taught empathy in history and systems of psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University and offered a course in the Secret Underground Story of Empathy at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Education. He is an empathy consultant in private practice in “on the forward edge in the Edgewater Community” in Chicago. If you need some empathy and want to get a good listening, talk to Dr Lou.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
When I say, reading Arthur Kleinman’s books changes one’s listening, I do not mean changes one’s listening the way reading Lacan or being hit on the head with a rolled up newspaper changes one’s listening. What I mean is, reading Kleinman expands one’s humanity, empathy, and capacity for engaged caring.
This is likewise the case with The Soul of Care: The Moral Education of a Husband and a Doctor (due out September 17, 2019 from Viking), the most important memoire by a psychiatrist since Carl Gustav Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections (1962) [though with a different source and trajectory], an unsolicited prepublication copy of which showed up in my snail mail. It is a real page-turner.
Arthur Kleinman, MD, trained as a psychiatrist, is an innovator in medical anthropology, a discipline of which he is the virtual founder. He and his late wife Joan, also an academic, spent considerable time and effort doing cross cultural (anthropological) research in China on traditional medicine, modern medicine, and the connecting points (and divergences) thereof. Of particular interest were survivor of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, who suffered from the symptoms of “neurasthenia,” a disorder whose explicit diagnosis has declined in the west – including fatigue, dizziness, anxiety, demoralization, and hard to diagnose pain(s).
In the course of their time in China, Kleinman (Arthur) gets a combination of exhaustion and dysentery, which reaches life disabling and even life threatening, stages. Joan is the very soul of caring – nursing him back to health.
This provides one of the paradigms for Arthur when Joan eventually gets early onset Alzheimer’s and he decides to take care of her at home.
The Soul of Care is the memoir of Kleinman’s life’s work (to date) and what happens when he decides to practice what he preaches and takes on the task of carrying for his increasingly ill wife, Joan.
Kleinman does not use the word “empathy” much, but it lives in his work, and in this case, the man is living in an empathy desert and that includes the health care system that is relating to him as pain instead of a whole person. Kleinman’s listening, which creates a context for human relatedness, succeeds in moving the dial back a few notches, though no way exists of undoing the now fused spine.
I have frequently had my mind blown by the power and precision of Kleinman’s writings. For example (and now we are in The Soul of Care), another patient has intractable pain relating to her diabetes, yet the diabetes is under control. The numbers from the blood work and related tests show that the diabetes should not be producing such results. Something is not adding up. Is the patient faking? Is there some disorder that has been overlooked?
This fellow, Kleinman, sits down and has a conversation with someone with intractable pain. He is genuinely curious about the patient. He is interested. He nails it. He brings along a medical student on a home healthcare visit. The above-cited patient is a diabetic, and is eligible for Meals on Wheels, transportation to the hospital, alternative housing (p. 206). The medical team (notice: there is a team!) had no idea, because no one asked.
Time-after-time, Kleinman shows up and asks a few questions – it all comes tumbling out – in many cases out-and-out trauma; in other cases, subclinical post traumatic stress disorder; in most cases, life circumstances, stress, inaccurate or incomplete diagnoses being transformed into bodily symptoms.
Continuing the above example, the patient is a single working mother; poor; working the grave yard shift while simultaneously cooking, cleaning, getting her kid (who is doing quite well, thanks) to school, and managing everything else well enough – everything except her pain. The patient is not faking – the pain is authentic, but diabetic neuropathy is not the cause. The cause is a work life imbalance of virtually unimaginable proportions (once again, “work-life balance” is my summary description, not Kleinman’s). The patient is running flat out, and is eligible for food stamps and other support available within the system. But no one on the team even bothered to have the conversation, even bothered to ask.
What is happening is that a medical issue does indeed exist. But the human being is more than an insulin pump. If medicine wants to be a caring profession not a bureaucratic profit center, then the doctor may useful make inquiry as to what the patient thinks is going wrong (and right) in her life. What is happening is that the emotions, affects, cognition, personal spirit, are elaborating what is in effect the anatomical or organic lesion and defect.
One can appreciate that individual practitioners may well feel they are like the “Lone Ranger,” single-handedly arrayed against human suffering. One will do what one can, writing the prescription at the end of the session for something, anything, to at least get the placebo affect as a positive expectation itself sets off a cascade of neurotransmitters. Kleinman appreciates how devilishly tricky it is both to address the biological system and the suffering human being present in the space
Yet Kleinman is uncompromising – and with good reason. Time-after-time, simple inquiries as to what are the facts of the person’s life circumstances point powerfully in the direction of human interventions that shift the person out of suffering and stuckness and into action. Putting the pain in context enables the person(s) to improve their own health through life style adjustments.
After all, is this not the age of the informed, engaged, proactive health care consumer? Many medical doctors pay lip service to such engagement, yet are not prepared to answer questions or, just as importantly, help the patient formulate the half-formed questions they are struggling to express. Do the job, do it completely, and do it the way it was meant to be done on behalf of the patient and suffering humanity.
Pain is one of those things that sometimes one can’t live with, but one certainly can’t live without. The reflex that causes one’s hand to jerk off of a hot casserole dish is not yet pain. The reflex precedes the experience of pain by a couple of seconds.
The reflex does not go through the brain; the experience of pain does. To become pain, the sensory information in the nerves has to go through the brain. In short, pain is important to tell the person about damage to his or her body that requires attention. Pain powerfully focuses one’s attention on getting actionable results in addressing the problem. But pain can cause a member or organ to become hyper-cathected – a tight loop that creates pain in anticipating pain to avoid pain. By focusing on the pain, attention can expand pain, grow pain, and become a habitual pattern of pain stimulation to the organism. Focus one’s attention elsewhere? Easier said than done, though alternative interventions such as meditation, hypnosis, and self-soothing stress reduction activities (which Kleinman does not much discuss) aim to do just that.
Kleinman is himself something of a survivor: a son who never met his biological father, a grade school student who bore two utterly separate family names once his mother remarried, from two opposed sub-ethnic factions, one in public school, the other in religious school; a scion of a mysterious past about which his Victorian family was silent or whispered inarticulately, so that he had the extra developmental task of figuring out by himself, yet not announcing to others, lest they be hurt what identified me, which therefore could not be authorized (or denied). (See Writing at the Margin (p. 2).
I learned a lot about empathy from Kleinman, though he rarely uses the word. Nor would I consider Kleinman an advocate of empathy understood in the narrow sense of a psychological mechanism. Rather in a medical world (Kleinman is a psychiatric), in which diagnostic categories are mapped to psychopharm interventions, Kleinman is an articulate advocate for sitting down and talking to the individual about what is going on in the person’s life. What is working and what is not working? While it takes extra time upfront, such a conversation for possibility makes a profound difference in actually getting an accurate diagnosis as opposed to a good enough, makeshift band-aide.
Kleinman several times quotes the celebrated founder of sociology Max Weber in his studies on bureaucracy. As institutions become larger and more complex, rules and roles independent of individual charisma and personal genius are needed to scale up to deliver services to more people. Nothing wrong with that as such – serving more people with high quality medical care is everyone’s aspiration. Yet when I have a disorder whose cause or course are unclear, like most people, I want the brilliant diagnostician, the TV doctor from central casting whether Ben Casey or House or whoever is trending, not a functionary.
For those interested in additional diagnostic pyrotechnics or just plain background, The Illness Narratives, the essentials of which are recapitulated in The Soul of Care, is the place to look for expanded and amazing narratives. It too is a real page turner.
Kleinman’s The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition (Basic Books 1989) distinguishes incisively between the person’s experience of illness and the doctor’s concept of the disease as part of a biological system. To be sure, substantial overlap often exists between these two, but not always. What then opens up and becomes possible is an entire method and approach to healing that puts biological reduction in its proper place.
For example: When chest pain can be reduced to a treatable acute lobar pneumonia, the biological reduction[ism] is a success. When chest pain is reduced to chronic coronary artery disease for which calcium blockers and nitroglycerine are prescribed, while the patient’s fear, the family’s frustration, the job conflict, the sexual impotence, and the financial crisis go undiagnosed and unaddressed, it is much less of a success (The Illness Narratives, p. 6).
The Illness Narratives expanded my appreciation of how a physical injury can take on a life of its own. The injury is real enough and it becomes a grain of sand around which a misshaped black pearl is elaborated (my metaphor, not Kleinman’s). The physical issue is elaborated by the emotions, as unresolved personal issues in a person’s life seem to be magnetically drawn towards making meaning out of pain and suffering.
Another example, in The Illness Narrativesa self made assistant police captain, performing good work, helping a neighbor, throws out his back. The pain gets habituated. He just can’t shake it off – month after month. It is affecting his job performance. He needs even more down time, sick time. He starts to feel that people do not believe him – he is really suffering.
To demonstrate to others and to himself how serious the matter is – and in the hope of finding relief for his pain – he agrees to surgery. However, if one is in pain, surgery can be a deal with the devil (so be sure to read the fine print), because, at least in the short term, surgery is a cause of acute pain.
Several years – and surgeries – later, the person – now a picture of pain – walks into Dr Kleinman’s office. The patient is the walking embodiment of pain. His every more seems painful. A conversation reveals a life narrative not for the faint of heart. He was not quite abandoned as a child, but basically he had to raise himself. He would have starved as a kid of tender age if he had not learned how to scramble some eggs; his head barely reaching high enough to assess the progress of the food in the frying pain.
Culminating in his latest contribution, The Soul of Care, Kleinman’s career has spanned the Corporation Transformation of American Medicineas identified by Paul Starr (1984) during which the medical doctor has gone from being a sovereign authority, whose word was virtually the law, to being a functionary in a corporation optimized for capitation and revenue generation, all the while paying marketing firms to communicate how caring everyone really is.
In order to preserve the integrity of his commitment amidst the corporate transformation of American medicine, Kleinman innovates, inventing his own field of study, medical anthropology. It has legs. It works. A journal is founder. High quality articles are published. Institutions, funders, and financial support are forthcoming. He teaches it at Mass General – we pause to honor the storied name – and at Harvard – another pause. With all this pausing, we are never going to get through this review. Yet the broader lessons for healthcare as a whole of medical anthropology do not break out of its own resonant, transformational niche.
Kleinman is definitely not living in a cave. He spends seven continuous years doing cross cultural research in China with his wife Joan, who becomes fluent in Chinese and provides important auxiliary functions in team building, networking, and having a life. (I shall follow the convention of calling “Arthur” by “Kleinman” and “Joan Kleinman” by “Joan” for simplicity.)
Therefore when Kleinman’s own world is brought low as the love of his life and his professional partner, his wife of thirty years, Joan, is stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s, he find himself wrestling not only with the disease but with the medical bureaucracy and the fact that his innovations in medical education have definitely notbeen widely adopted.
First he learns how to perform household chores. He learns how to pay the bills. He takes over bathing Joan and preparing meals. He marshals support from his gown up children, who have kids of tender age of their own and are running flat out – all the while continuing teaching and research (albeit with a certain amount of flex time provided by his long-term employers – pause again to honor them – for whom Kleinman is a celebrity academic).
He gets a home helper, who is indeed an essential part of the support system. With 20-20 hindsight, he second guesses his own agreement, requested by Joan, that she be allowed to decline (and die) at home. He has an important late insight, realizing that Joan is no longer the person who entered into that agreement, the dementia having robbed her of [essential aspects of] her identity. Nor is he the same person, who he was after the ongoing ten year long struggle. Between Joan’s agitation, loss of identity, intermittent fear or psychosis, and incontinence (wandering was less of an issue, because the patient became blind), all bets – and prior agreements – are problematic.
The couple consult many specialists. The neurological resident Kleinman and his wife visit is interested in talking with them again – in six months – and in following the irreversible course of the disease, not in engaging with the human impact and cost for the wife and husband.
Confidentiality is important; but it becomes yet another obstacle as the well-intentioned neurology resident insists on addressing Joan, even though her expressed wishes are that Arthur be included in all the decisions. Queue up the living will and health care power of attorney. All well and good. But the problem is that the patient does not want to have a legal conversation, she wants to have one about caring. Noticeably absent is guidance as to caring. Key term: caring.
Kleinman matriculates in the college of hard knocks. As caring – and empathic – has he already is, it is all used up by the progressive dementia. He gets a home helper since, though relatively well off, he must keep working to pay the mounting bills – and for his own sanity. Towards the end of the middle stage of the disease, he actually takes her with him to Shanghai, China, in order to fulfill academic obligations and complete a stalled project in cross cultural health care.
The reader cannot help but wonder, “What is this guy thinking?” as he takes Joan, by then an easily agitated person developing Capgras (“imposter”) syndrome, through airport security to Shanghai. Somehow he pulls it off. The quality of care in China and the support for the family is truly inspiring, especially given how eager his Chinese colleagues are to be supportive with both traditional and modern medicine (and given that no one really has the answer regarding Alzheimer’s).
Without using the word “empathy,” Kleinman was already operating at an advanced level in relating to others in a caring way. He is the Other whose listening brought relatedness to suffering individual in one case after another. Now he faces new, life-defining challenge.
A recurring theme becomes how his ten years of care giving becomes a descent to the hell of irreversible dementia without the prospect of rebirth. As near as I can figure, his is a journey of the hero, with ample commitment and tragic struggle, but without heroism.
Even given his training as a psychiatrist and anthropologist, a well-connected professorial network with high quality, [relatively] responsive support, he is brought low, isolated, at the brink of emotional despair. But how could it be otherwise? He is losing his wife to a disease that robs a person of her identity (i.e., dignity), but she is still physically present and intermittently coherent. Even so he struggles to get straight answers from the medical professionals about the course of the disease, about the trade-offs between home care and assisted living.
The back story is that at some point early on in their relationship Joan decided that her life project was to take care of him (Arthur), the family, the kids, even supporting his research – they published academic papers together – while also mastering the Chinese language and immersing herself in that culture. She got good at it – very good indeed.
Kleinman decides that he wants to return the favor. Of course, it is not as simple as that. Kleinman talks about his own guilt and what he had to survive coming up. The point is that this man Arthur Kleinman is already the soul of caring; but he takes his caring to a new level through the refiner’s fire of caring for Joan.
It is a heart-warming and inspiring narrative – the ultimate illness narrative (also the title of Kleinman’s most impactful work prior to this one) – but also a harrowing one. Not for the faint of heart. Apparently at some point, [many] advanced Alzheimer’s patients stop eating. A morphine drip and lip moistening are the palliative measures recommended.
If you need a good cry, you will get one by the time Kleinman realizes there is no way to take care of Joan at home even with a full time assistant. The end is not
quick, but given the morphine drip, neither is it painful. What it is is impossible to put into word. The image of suffering of Shakespeare’s Lear, blind and wandering in a storm of agitated emotions towards the edge of the cliff, looms large. It’s her; it’s him; it’s both, though he ends up being a survivor. What is painful is the loss – the loss of humanity of the Alzheimer’s patient.
When Kleinman uses the word “moral” – it occurs in the subtitle of The Soul of Care as well as in the subtitle of his What Really Matters(Oxford 2007) – of course, he is referring to value judgments, candidate categorical imperatives, and assessment of ethically right and wrong behavior and character. At times, I doubt that the word “moral” adds to the discussion, since it is mainly about preserving one’s sanity in the face of the disintegration of the skills needed for the activities of daily living.
“Humanity” and “morality” overlap extensively and I doubt it makes sense to ask which came first. Yet they are not identical. There is a conflictual aspect to our humanity that morality attempts in vain to capture and make right by judging. Lear, blind and stumbling towards the edge of the precipice, is also wandering at the edge of morality, though arguably he never stops being a struggling human being. Neither does Kleinman.
Nor at any time does Kleinman become a moral relativist, though he is keenly in touch with the fuzzy, grey areas. The problem is that the space of human action and engagement becomes so thick with judgments and evaluations that one can hardly think, much less take action in the face of urgent emergencies.
Most of the tough (and narratively engaging) cases involve fraught decisions where fundamentally good people actually perform bad actions. In some cases the consequences of the action escape from the agent – as when the soldier follows the sergeant’s orders and blows up the car supposedly containing the suicide bomber, but it is actually a family of five on the way to deliver a baby. That is moral trauma. But in other cases individuals actually, intentionally commit war crimes (e.g., Winthrop Cohen in Kleinman’s What Really Matters) and spend the remainder of their lives twisted in knots over what happened, what does it mean, and how to go on.
Taking matters up a level, one such looming moral trauma is the ongoing corporate transformation of American medicine.
Kleinman channels some of his well-founded anger into targeting the systematic breakdowns of the American Healthcare system in the face of revenue incentives, corporate metrics, and devaluing caring. His jeremiad – I mean, argument – may usefully be made required reading – not only for doctors but especially for administrations and managers – in medical schools and systems. It is often the administrators who are taking advantage of the medical professional’s empathy in demanding more patients per period with no compromise of quality or attention to the demands of addressing human suffering in its physical as well as emotional and spiritual aspects.
Kleinman throws down the gauntlet, demonstrating just how far main stream, neoliberal, bio-political health care has diverged from his humanistic vision: “The problem, as some suggest, is not that we fail to quantify these experiences [of caring], but that they cannot be quantified, because they are essential human interaction, the soul of what health care is” (p. 238).
Many long term advantages exist in reducing spending upfront by life style changes in nutrition, exercise, stress management – and avoiding expensive medical technologies and interventions once the damage is done. A compelling quantitative case can be made that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Nevertheless the fact remains: quality health care is expensive. Though I am just a citizen, the Siemens Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI) device that took a picture of the torn cartilage in my knee looks to be almost as large and as complex, though in totally different ways, as the lunar excursion module (LEM) that landed two men on the moon in 1969. It turns out to be Rocket Science, so why should it be less expensive? Imaging, genomics, proteomics, personal medicine, personalized treatment using the most advanced technologies are quite simply expensive.
What is a lot less expensive – though by no means totally without cost – is sitting down and having a conversation for possibility with another human being – about her pain, disorder, and her life. And this conversation is one of the sources of quality healthcare and human flourishing, or at least pain management. This provides a powerful picture, too.
Read an excerpt from the book, quoted in Time Magazine: https://time.com/5680723/doctor-wifes-alzheimers/
A rumor of empathy is no rumor in The Soul of Care and Kleinman’s works. Empathy LIVES in Kleinman’s contribution. Kleinman does not emphasize this point about the power of ordinary language, though it is near enough to the surface of his text, but rather calls out the moral imperative: we must think deeply and with integrity about the kind of society and community we want to be. The extreme wealth being generated by innovations in technology make possible maximizing acts of humanity that advance community well-being. Whether that happens to the USA, as a healthcare nation is an existential choice of the highest order on the part of the individual and the community.
Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
I have been catching up on my reading.
Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself (Penguin, 427pp. ($18)), was published in 2007, now some twelve years ago. This publication occurred towards
the beginning of the era of neuro-hype that now has us choking on everything from neuroaesthetics to neurohistory, from neuromarketing to neurozoology. So pardon my initial skepticism.
However, this book is the real deal. To those suffering from a variety of neurological disorders or issues, extending from major strokes to learning disabilities or emotional disorders, Doidge’s narratives offer hope that hard work pays off. If more authors and editors would have read (and understood!) it, today’s neuro-hype would be a lot less hyped.
Let me explain. There is neural science aplenty in Doidge’s exposition and defense of the flexibility – key term: plasticity – of the brain. There are also plentiful high tech devices (prostheses) that make for near science fiction innovation, except that they are engineering interventions, not fictions.
However, what distinguishes Norman Doidge’s contribution is that, in every case without exception, the neural science “breakthrough” on the part of the patient is preceded by substantial – in some cases a year or more – of hard work on the patient’s behalf to regain lost neural functionality.
Yes, from the point of view of our everyday expectations of what can be attained in six weeks of twice a week rehabilitation, the results are “miraculous”; but upon closer inspection the “miracle” turns out to be 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.
I hasten to add that the exact distribution of effort varies. But the point is that, while the “miraculous” is supposed to be uncaused, lots of hard work on the part of the patient, properly directed, is a key determining factor. This in no way detracts from the authentic innovations and corresponding effort on the part of the neural scientists and engineers engaging in the rehabilitation process.
The woman who lost her sense of balance tells of a woman (Cheryl) whose ability to orient herself in space is “taken out” by an allergic reaction to an antibiotic (gentamicin) administered to treat an unrelated condition. Balance is sometimes considered a sixth sense, for without it the person literally looses her balance and falls over. Thus, Cheryl became the woman perpetually falling. She becomes a “Wobbler.”
While such a condition does not cause a person to die, unless the fall proves fatal, but it destroys the ability to engage in the activities of daily living. Enter Paul Bach-y-Rita, MD, and Yuri Danilov (biophysicist) (p. 3), who design a helmet that transmits orientation data to Cheryl through an ingenious interface that she can hold on her tongue like a small tongue depressor. It transmits a tingling sensation towards the front of the stick if she is bending forward, towards the back of the stick if she is bending backwards, and so on. Who would have thought it? Turns out that the tongue is a powerful brain-machine interface.
After some basic training as Cheryl wore it, she was able to orient herself and not fall over. After awhile, she took the helmet off and found that the ability to orient herself lasted a few minutes. There was a residual effect. With more training, the persistence of the after effect was extended. Finally, after a year of work, she was able to dispense with the helmet. She had “magically” regained her sense of balance. The neural circuits that had been damaged were in effect by-passed and the functionality taken over by other neural areas in the brain based on the training. Cheryl was no longer a Wobbler.
This is the prelude to the narrative of the dramatic recovery of Bach-y-Rita’s own father, the Catalan poet Pedro Bach-y-Rita, who has a massive disabling stroke, leaving him paralyzed in half his body and unable to speak.
After four weeks of rehabilitation based on pessimistic theories that the brain could not benefit from extended treatment, the father, Pedro, was literally a basket case. Enter brother George – Pedro’s other son. Now George did not know that rehab was supposed to be impossible, and took the father home to the house in Mexico. They got knee pads and taught him to crawl – because it is useful to crawl before one walks, which Pedro eventually did again after a year of effort. Speech and writing also returned after much effort copying and practicing phonetics.
Pedro returned to teaching full time at City College in New York (p. 22) until he retires years later. After Pedro’s death, a routine autopsy of his brain in 1965, showed “that my father [Pedro] had had a huge lesion from his stroke and that it had never healed, even though he recovered all these functions” (p. 23).
The take-away? What modern neural science means when it asserts that nerve cells do not heal is accurate. But “plasticity” means that the brain is able to produce alternative means of performing the same messaging and functional activity. “The bridge is out,” so plasticity invents a detour around the damaged area. Pedro walks and talks again and returns to teaching.
Conventional rehab usually lasts for an hour and sessions are three times a week for (say) six weeks. Edward Taub has patients drill six hours a day, for ten to fifteen days straight. Patients do ten to twelve tasks a day, repeating each task ten times apiece. 80 percent of stroke patients who have lost arm functionality improve substantially (p. 147). Research indicates the same results may be available with only three hours a day of dedicated work.
In short, thanks to plasticity, recovery from debilitating strokes is possible but – how shall I put it delicately? – it is not for the faint of heart. Turn off the TV! Get out your knee pads?
So when doctors or patients say that the damage is permanent or cannot be reversed, what they are really saying is that they lack the resources to support the substantial but doable effort to retrain the brain to relearn the function in question – and are unwilling to do the work. The question for the patients is: How hard are you willing to work?
The next case opens the diverse world of learning disabilities. Barbara Arrowsmith looms large, who as a child had a confusing set of learning disabilities in spatial relationships, speaking, writing, and symbolization. Still, she had a demonstrable talent for reading social clues. She was not autistic, but seemingly “retarded” – cognitively impaired. She had problems with symbolic relationships, including telling time.
With the accepting and tolerant environment provided by her parents, who seemed really not to “get” what was going on, Barbara set about to cure herself. She (and her parents) invented a series of exercises for herself that look a lot like what “old style” school used to be: A lot of repetitive exercises, rote memorization, copying, and structure. Flash cards to learn how to tell time. There is nothing wrong with the Montessori-inspired method of letting the inner child blossom at her or his own rapid rate of learning, except it does not work for some kids. Plasticity demonstrates that “one size fits all” definitely does notfit all.
The result? The Arrowsmith School was born, featuring a return to a “classical” approach:
“[…] [A] classical education often included rote memorization of long poems in foreign languages which strengthen the auditory memory […] and an almost fanatical attention to handwriting, which probably helped strengthen motor capacities […] add[ing] speed and fluency to reading and speaking” (pp. 41–42).
This also provides the opportunity to take a swipe at “the omnipresent PowerPoint presentation – the ultimate compensation for a weak premotor cortex.” Well said.
Without having anything wrong with their learning capabilities as such, some children have auditory cortex neurons that are firing too slowly. They could not distinguish between two similar sounds – e.g., “ba” and “da” – or which sound was first and which second if the sounds occurred close together (p. 69):
“Normally neurons, after they have processed a sound, are ready to fire again after about a 30-millesecond rest. Eighty percent of language-impaired children took at least three times that length, so that they lost large amounts of language information” (p. 69).
The solution? Exploit brain plasticity to promote the proliferation of aural dendrites that distinguish relevant sounds and sounds, in effect speeding up processing by making the most efficient use of available resources.
Actually, the “solution” looks like a computer game with flying cows and brown bears making phonetically relevant noises. Seems to work. Paula Tallal, Bill Jenkins, and Michael Merzenich get honorable mentions, and their remarkable results were published in the journal Science(January 1996). Impressive.
Though not developed to treat autism spectrum disorders, such exercises have given a boost to children whose sensory processing left them over-stimulated – and over-whelmed, resulting in withdrawal and isolation. Improved results with school work – the major “job” of most children – leads, at least indirectly, to improved socialization, recognition by peers and family, and integration into the community (p.75). Once again, it seems to work.
As a psychoanalytically trained medical doctor, one of Doidge’s interests is in addiction in its diverse forms, including alcohol and Internet pornography. For example, Doidge approvingly quotes Eric Nestler, University of Texas, for showing “how addictions cause permanent changes in the brains of animals” (p. 107). This comes right after quoting Alcoholics Anonymous that there are “no former addicts” (p. 106). Of course, the latter might just be rhetoric – “don’t let your guard down!” Since this is not a softball review, I note that “permanent changes in the dopamine system” are definitely notplasticity. A counter-example to Doidge’s?
Doidge gets high marks for inspirational examples and solid, innovative neural science reporting. But consistency?
A conversation for possibility – that is, talk therapy – which evokes the issues most salient to being human – relationships, work, tastes, and loves – activate BNGF [brain-derived neural growth factor], leading to a proliferation or pruning back of neural connections. This is perhaps the point to quote another interesting factoid: “Rats given Prozac [the famous antidepressant fluoxatine] for three weeks had a 70 percent increase in the number of cells in their hippocampus” [the brain area hypothesized to be responsible for memory translation in humans] (p. 241). This is all good news, especially for the rats (who unfortunately did not survive the experiment), but the devil, as usual, is in the details.
On a positive note, Freud was a trained neurologist, though he always craved recognition from the psychiatric establishment [heavens knows why – perhaps to build his practice]. In a separate chapter including a psychoanalytic case (“On Turning Our Ghosts into Ancestors,” an unacknowledged sound byte from Hans Loewald, psychoanalyst), Doidge’s points out in a footnote that having a conversation with a therapist changes one’s neurons too. The evidence is provided by fMRI studies before and after therapy (p. 379). This is the real possibility for – get ready, welcome to – neuropsychoanalysis.
Like most addictions – alcohol, street drugs, gambling, cutting – Internet porn is a semi-self-defeating way of regulating one’s [dis-regulated] emotions. The disregulated individual may usefully learn expanded ways of regulating his emotions, including how to use empathy with other people to do so. Meanwhile, the plasticity of addictive behavior turns out to be more sticky and less flexible than the optimistic neuro-plasticians (if I may coin a term) might have hoped.
Doidge has an unconventional, but plausible, hypothesis that “we have two separate pleasure systems in our brains, one that has to do with exciting pleasure and one with satisfying pleasure” (p. 108). Dopamine versus endorphins? Quite possibly. Yet one doesn’t need neuropsychoanalysis to appreciate this.
Plato’s dialogue Gorgias makes the same point quite well (my point, not Doidge’s). Satisfying one’s appetites puts one in the hamster’s wheel of endless spinning whereas attaining an emotional-cognitive balance through human relations, contemplation, meditation, or similar stress reducing activities provide enduring satisfaction. The tyrant may be able to steal your stuff – your property, freedom, and even your life – but the tyrant is the most miserable of men. The cycle of scratching the itch, stimulating the need further to scratch the itch, is a trap – and a form of suffering. Suffering is sticky, and Freud’s economic problem of masochisms looms large and still has not been solved.
Doidge interweaves an account of a breakthrough psychoanalysis with a 50 plus year old gentleman with a narrative of Eric Kandel’s Nobel Prize winning research. Kandel and his team published on protein synthesis and the growth of neural connections needed to transform short- into long-term memory. While it is true that humans are vastly more complicated than the mollusks in Kandel’s study, the protein synthesis is not.
Thus, another neural mechanism is identified by which Talk Therapy changes your brain. Mark Solms – founding neuropsychoanalyst – and Oliver Turnbull translate Freud’s celebrated statement “where id was ego shall be” into neural science: “The aim of the talking cure […] from the neurobiological point of view [is] to extend the functional sphere of the influence of the prefrontal loves” (p. 233).
Even if we are skirting close to the edges of neuro-hype here, it is an indisputable factoid that Freud, the neurologist, draws a picture of a neuronal synapse in 1895 (p. 233). At the time, such a diagram was a completely imaginative and speculative hypothesis. Impressive. Freud also credibly anticipates Hebb’s law (“neurons that fire together wire together”), but then again, in this case, so did David Hume (in 1731) with his principle of association.
Meanwhile, back to the psychoanalysis with the 50-something gentleman who has suffered from a smoldering, low order depression for much of his life. Due to age, this is not considered a promising case. But that was prior to the emerging understanding of plasticity.
This provides Doidge with the opportunity to do some riffing, if not free associating, of his own about trauma, Spitz’s hospitalism, and psychopharmacology. “Trauma in infancy appears to lead to a supersensitization – a plastic alteration – of the brain neurons that regulate glucocorticoids” (p. 241). “Depression, high stress, and childhood trauma all release glucocorticoids and kill cells in the hippocampus, leading to memory loss” (p. 241). The result? The depressed person cannot give a coherent account of his life.
The ground breaking work of Rene Spitz on hospitalism – of children confined to minimum care hospitals (anticipating the tragic results in the Rumanian orphanages after the fall of the USSR) – is invoked as evidence of the damage that can occur. When the early environment is sufficient to keep the baby alive biologically but lacks the human (empathic) responsiveness required to promote the emotional well-being of the whole person, the result is similar to acquired autism – an overwhelmed, emotionally stunted person, struggling to survive in what seems to the individual to be a strange and unfriendly milieu.
I summarize the lengthy course of hard work required to produce the result of Doidge’s successful psychoanalysis. The uncovering of older, neural pathway gets activated and reorganized in the process of sustained free association, dream work, and the conversation for possibility in the psychoanalytic “talking cure”. Through an elaborate and lengthy process of working through, the patient regains his humanity, his lifelong depression lifts, and he is able to enjoy his retirement.
So far neural plasticity has been a positive phenomenon and a much needed source of hope and inspiration to action. However, plasticity also has a dark side. For example, if one loses a limb due to an amputation, the brain takes over what amounts to the now available neuronal space on the neural map. One’s physical anatomy has changed, but the brain seems plastically committed to reusing the neural map of the body for other purposes.
The limb is no longer there, but it hurts, cramps, burns, itches, because the neural map has not been amputated. However, the patient suffers – sometimes substantially – because one cannot massage or scratch a limb that does not exist. Yet the pain LIVEs in the neural system – and that makes it real.
Pain is the dark side of plasticity. Pain is highly useful and important for survival. It protects living creatures from dangers to life and limb such as fire or noxious substances. We have a painful experience and learn to avoid that which caused the pain.
Yet pain can take on a life of its own. Anticipating pain can itself be painful. Once pain is learned it is almost literally burned into the neurons and it takes considerable work (and ingenuity) to unlearn – to extinguish – the pain.
“Our pain maps get damaged and fire incessant false alarms” (p. 180). V. S. Ramachandran has performed remarkable work with understanding that most recalcitrant of phenomena, phantom limb pain. Ramachandran’s is deservedly famous for many reasons. But his simple innovation of the mirror box really requires an illustration. It is literally done with a mirror.
The subject with the missing hand is presented with a reflected image of the good, intact hand, which in reflection looks just like the missing hand. The subject experiences the limb as being a part of his body. (That in itself is a remarkable effect – the neural “socket” is still there.) In effect, the individual gets the hand back as something he owns. He is able to experience closing his missing hand by closing the good hand. This relieves cramps and stiffness.
In other experiments, the lights are turned off and various areas of the body are touched. The area that was once the [now missing] hand is used to map sensations on another area of the body, for example, one’s face. Scratching an itch on the phantom limb by scratching just the right spot on one’s face becomes possible because the neural map of the missing limb has been taken over and is now being used to map a different part of the anatomy
Doidge ends with a flourish:
“V. S. Ramachandra, the neurological illusionist, had become the first physician to perform a seemingly impossible operation: the successful amputation of a phantom limb” (p. 187). He did this by changing the brain – in effect deconditioning (deleting) the representation of the phantom limb from the brain. Thus, the promise and paradox of plasticity.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
In spite of the many patients who have been helped to lead emotionally stable, more productive lives thanks to two generations of psychopharmacological medicines, psychiatry is facing an ongoing challenge of its foundation and legitimacy. That is the take-away in Anne Harrington’s Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness (W.W. Norton, 2019, 366 pp., $27.95).
So what is the “trouble” with the “troubled search”? Thereby hangs the tale. The optimistic biological psychiatry of the 1980s and 1990s is beginning to unravel in the new millennium. Harrington’s is an equal opportunity debunking.
All the new drugs that eventually displaced the Freudians, whose pride in the 1950s through 1980s preceded their fall, were developed during that period of time. “All
the major categories of drugs still used today in psychiatry were discovered then [….] no minds were changed that did not want to be changed” (p. xvi).
Meanwhile, in 2013 some thirty years after the biological psychiatrists declared victory, Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), reported with concern that all of psychiatry’s diagnostic categories were still based, not on biological markers of disease, but “on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms.” This was, according to Insel, “equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever” (p. xv).
With a characteristic dry wit, Insel concludes that biology never read the DSM. If this was supposed to be the biological underpinning of psychiatry, the firm foundation was more shifting sand than any might wish.
The really troubling thing that I learned from Harrington is not that drug companies have become less an “engine of innovation” than a “vast marketing machine.” That is already widely appreciated by anyone who has not been living in a cave – including most psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and front line medical doctors.
Harrington’s reasoned, documented, and compelling narrative contains the ultimate smack down: “many psychiatrists, having tethered so much of their identity to drugs and prescribing rights, sold their services to the drug companies” (p. xviii). This remains the blind spot of the profession, even among those who acknowledge the dilemma. If you make a deal with the devil, be sure to read the find print.
The blind spot becomes a black hole as the gravitational pull, in this case of revenue, prevents practitioners from escaping, even though they really want to talk with their patients at the length needed to figure out what is actually troubling them.
The breaking news? What is less well known is that Big Parma is now nearly flat out stopped in its quest. The quest to find the biological foundations of mental illness is on a slope of diminishing return; and Big Pharma seems to be abandoning the search. This does not mean that there will not be copycat drugs of medicines coming off patent or new variations on old themes. To my mind, this development needs to be better known and debated.
Another former NIMH director, Steven Hyman, comments on the abandonment of the field by the pharmaceutical industry: “the underlying science remains immature and . . . therapeutic development in psychiatry is simply too difficult and too risky” (p. xv).
In a separate email communication with Harrington, Hyman writes: “When [pharmaceutical] companies were told they had to compare new drugs not only to placebo but to an existing drug known to be efficacious, or have a predictive biomarker to gain approval in Europe – their response was ‘we don’t know how to do that.’ . . . In essence the EMA [European Medicines Agency] called their bluff” (p. 266).
Full disclosure: in my own training as part of the Committee on Research and Special Topics (CORST) at Rush Medical University in the 2010-2012 time frame, all my teachers, the psychiatrists, without exception, made us memorize the generic name for the medications so as not unwittingly to give publicity to the brand name of the drug companies.
While acknowledging that the medicines often helped, the teachers sensed – indeed knew – something was off the rails. Thus, they expressed their disdain for the monopoly rents of Big Pharma (though not using these exact words). Yet, for so many reasons, they continued to turn the crank as rapidly as possible in prescribing the pharmacological interventions that were the prevailing paradigm. No alternative paradigm was visible.
How could this happen? The irony is that, at a high level, the biological psychiatrists made the same mistake as the Freudians. It is a “pride that goeth before the fall” moment, and notwithstanding selected voices of moderation, both sides came to embrace a position that no one else but us (really) knows anything about anything.
Harrington’s ultimate analysis of the unraveling of the optimistic biological psychiatry paradigm of the 1980s: “I argue that this happened, not just become the gap between hype and the state of scientific understanding was too great to bridge (though it was), but also because of a critical error that the original revolutionaries had made. Instead of reflecting on the extent to which the Freudians had lost credibility by insisting that they could be experts on everything, the new generation of biological revolutionaries repeated their mistake: they declared themselves thenewexperts on everything. No one suggested that it might be prudent to decide which forms of mental suffering were best served by a medical model, and which might be better served in some other way. Revolutionaries don’t cede ground” (p. xvii).
Harrington’s narrative is a page turner, even for those who already know the details and the usual suspects, extending from Charcot’s ground breaking work and monumental self-deception, Emil Kraeplin’s distinction between thought disorder and mood disorder, Karl Jasper’s “brain mythology,” the psychoanalysts domination of psychiatry, through the fever cure of Julius Wagner-Jauregg, John Cade’s lithium salt discoveries, the dancing tuberculosis patients responding to iproniazid (complete with a photo from Life Magazine, 1952), the human rights violations, “operation icepick” of Walter Freeman (and James Watts), Ugo Cerletti’s electroshock machine, the breakthrough to the chemical lobotomy of chlorpromazine, the emptying of the asylums, the broken promises, the litigation faced by Chestnut Lodge, the appalling case of Rose Kennedy, listening to Prozac, anti-psychiatry, the accidental judgments, the good intentions gone bad, and, in the upshot, purposes mistook and fallen on the inventors’ head. All this does Harrington truly deliver.
The narrative left me wondering whether we are not living through another period of brain mythology. Granted the account of neurotransmitters, of serotonin and/or dopamine imbalance, can be traced down to neural synapses, science is at the effect of a massive correlation versus causation fallacy. The voodoo correlations in fMRI research support the colonization of vast areas of the social sciences and humanities by neurophilosophy, neuromarketing, neurolaw, neurohistory, neuroaesthetics, and so on. But enough of my cynicism and resignation.
What are the possibilities going forward? Is an alternative paradigm coming into view? Though Harrington’s recommendations are combined in a section on Afterthoughts that left me wishing for more, what she does offer are powerful and on target. Still, after having spent so much time and effort telling the tortured tale of psychiatry’s rise and looming fall, will the profession be willing to listen to her call for “an act of great professional and ethical courage” (p. 273)?
Her recommendation is to cut scope. Given the lack of underlying science, this also implies expanded modesty about psychiatry’s entitlement to power, authority, and market boundaries. Positively expressed, renew the commitment to engaging with the most severe forms of mental illness and leave the routine care of the “worried well” and support for the mentally ill to other professionals. “
Harrington: “The new psychiatry I am envisioning could also aim to overcome its persistent reductionist habits and commit to an ongoing dialogue with the scholarly world of the social sciences and even the humanities [….] [E]ven as it [psychiatry] retains its focus on biological processes and disease, it seeks to understand ways that human being functioning, disordered or not, is sensitive to culture and context (as the recent crisis over the placebo effect in psychopharmacology […] has likely shown)” (pp. 275 – 276).
Harrington calls for interdisciplinary collaboration on a “pluralistic, powering-sharing approach” (p. 274). Make it a priority to overcome the position that “the knowledge and practices of all the nonmedically trained workers are by definition subordinate to those of the medically trained ones” (p. 274). This would help to close the credibility gap suffered by the psychiatric establishment as a result of the shameful ways of deinstitutionalization in the 1960s and ‘70s led to homelessness, incarceration, and premature death (pp. 274 – 275).
I can hear psychiatrists saying, off camera, we too were blindsided, we too did not know. That may indeed be the case, but professional psychiatry has been left holding the smoking chlorpromazine gun. A major tranquilizer and a highly useful one; but nothing like insulin that a diabetic would contemplate taking for lifetime due to a specific disease that leaves the patient deficient in insulin. Begin the process of rehabilitation by acknowledging the solid social science research that shows many people with serious mental disorders benefit far more from being given their own apartment and access to support communities than a script for new or stronger antipsychotic (p. 275).
Harrington makes a powerful case that general practitioners and psychiatrists are perpetuating a fiction that the drugs they are prescribing are correcting biochemical deficiencies caused by disease, much as (say) a prescription of insulin corrects a biochemical deficiency caused by diabetes (p. 273). Such rhetoric is badly oversold. Harrington does not say that the medicines do not help the person tolerate distress, regulate emotions, or self-sooth. Often they do. If one is going to step in front of a bus, far better to take the medicine. Live to fight another day.
Given the complexity of the scientific challenges, psychiatry need not feel embarrassed. However, neither should it be zealously promoting imminent breakthroughs and revolutions as if it were an adjunct to the popular press or a corporate press release.
Harrington makes the case that the underlying science is not anywhere near the level the neurohype would have us believe. “You have a chemical imbalance” is a marketing position, not a scientifically established truth. “Schizophrenia is like diabetes and you have to take this antipsychotic drug for the rest of your life” is a rhetorical position, not a scientific fact. This is scientism, not science. This is psychiatry’s troubled search for the biological basis of mental illness.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project