11/08/2014

Rock star professor or memory magician? Perhaps you recall.

This is a slightly longer version of an article originally published at the Huffington Post ... the last four paragraphs were cut by the editor. I think this version has a better ending.

The submission to HuffPo was invited - it was to provide accompaniment for a HuffPost TED Weekend video featuring Loftus ("Why Your Memories Can't Be Trusted").


Elizabeth Loftus spoke at a forensic mental health conference in Monterey last year.  

I walked in, saw two “early career” colleagues in the front row seats I coveted, and asked, “Are you here for Loftus?”

They both nodded eagerly.  

I said, “So, you must know she’s a rock star.”  

They both nodded eagerly again.  

In fact, Professor Loftus is like a rock star among psychologists:  great teacher, renowned mentor, brilliant scientist, and in the real world outside academia (where I work), she is a most distinguished professional. That is all well-known and is really no more surprising than finding out that Mick Jagger also plays the piano.  It takes more than that to be admired among scholars, and magic helps.

Loftus (et al) produces research that is elegant and compelling. It evokes a sense of the uncanny, like magic instead of science.  She could actually start that way, saying: “what you are about to witness are some of psychology’s most challenging and foundational concepts in action.” 

The magic part is in the method.  Before the method comes the question: is it a question that can be answered?  For Loftus, the answer goes like this:  we encountered a question that seemed impossible to answer, “so I designed a study …”.  

If I am asked why the sky is blue, I might say “how do you know the sky is blue?” 

You can get punched for responding to a question that way, but as a scholar, I am allowed to make the epistemological inquiry. 

Epistemology asks:  “how do you know what you know?”  

Professor Loftus did get punched (not literally, it was worse) after forcing people to ask that question of themselves. She also provided some answers:  some of what you know may not be true;  just because you remember something doesn’t mean it happened; memories are constructed and created from dynamic (not fixed) associations.  And by the way, I can mess with your mind like you wouldn’t believe.  

Loftus focuses on memory, but the entire perceptual system is the same: what you see isn’t necessarily real.  The sensory information flow to your brain is constant, and all that information must be processed.  The system decides what to store and what to ignore.  If something turns up missing, it just fills in the blanks.  When we are agitated or upset, the process gets messy. The constant threat is sensory overload - too much information (TMI) and you’re toast.  

It is one thing to talk about how our minds can fool us.   An adult remembers going to Disneyland as a child for a picture with Bugs Bunny? No problem.

It is different when you see how our minds can fail us.  What the false memory experiments show us is that reality testing is ordinarily and quite naturally subject to error.  For the sake of her critics, it would have been better if Loftus had explained it the way John Lennon did in Strawyberry Fields Forever: nothing is real … nothing to get hung about.

Loftus correctly notes that your memory is your identity.  If you lose your memory, you’ve lost your mind.  It is a frightening experience. 

It is equally frightening to find that you cannot trust your perception of the world around you.  In evolutionary terms, you may be good at getting food and having sex, but if you don’t know what’s going on, you are the one the lion is going to eat.  

Loftus tells us that if you know something and it is not true, there are real world implications.  Innocent people go to prison,  kids end up eating vegetables, scholars get sued for stating the obvious. Misinformation can lead to war and it is a method of oppression

When you stand up to authority, the first thing they do is say you are crazy: “obviously, you misperceive.”  It is a Catch-22 of the most oppresive sort.  If you challenge authority you must be insane, so why should they pay attention?  

Do it once, they say you’re nuts.  Do it twice, they say you are dangerous.  If you are dangerous, then you can be strapped down, locked up, or tossed out.  

And even if you jealously guard your sense of reality, someone like Elizabeth Loftus might come along and make you think you were attacked by a vicious dog.  I am sure people people have called her dangerous.  

Everyone has the one same deeply held belief.  Paul Simon described it best: “I know what I know … that’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head.”  

Loftus challenges that fundamental assumption (“what do you know?) without mentioning the brain in the back of your head.  That is the core of our science, the idea that psychological processes are real, and that it doesn’t always have to be about body and brain.  Along with everything else, our science is about how the mind works.

Professor Loftus is a warrior for these ideas, and for real people.  Colleagues young and old will gather to hear her speak.





Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.

4/03/2014

Congress gets serious about mental health, again.

Congressional hearings are being held today on the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. 

Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy is the principle author. His work on the bill began after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook - Murphy is a clinical psychologist. 
Agony

There is no ambiguity about Murphy's position on the issue.  He told the New York Times: "It’s a broken system, and we’re not going to fix it by throwing a little money here or there.”

The effort is serious and the individual initiatives in the bill are well-researched. One provision would strip funding from Federal substance abuse programs - those that have shown no evidence of their worth. Another recognizes that police and emergency crews are routinely the first providers in psychiatric crises, and that they need training too.

The controversial element in the bill concerns proposals to expand "assisted outpatient programs." The assistance referred to is mostly in the form of involuntary medication. It is about something that happens everyday in every community in America: a parent cannot get help for an adult child who is on a clear path towards a psychiatric tragedy of some sort.

The Civil Rights arguments surrounding this one provision (among two dozen) will probably garner the most attention and should present the only opposition to this necessary legislation. The Civil Rights issue is complex, but not so much so when looked at in the glare of a tragic outcome.

The NY Times article (Mental Health Groups Split on Bill to Overhaul Care) says that the measure has support from both sides of the aisle in Congress.


Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.

2/26/2014

Zero Tolerance Policies Gone Wild!

A teenager in Montgomery County Tennessee has become the new poster-boy for a continuing news drama that should perhaps be called:  Zero Tolerance Policies Gone Wild!

Apparently, the aspiring college applicant and ROTC candidate did not know that the truck he drove to school one morning carried a tool commonly used by fishermen (i.e., a knife) - a tool that can be repurposed for use as a weapon.  The young man is being sent to the "alternative" high school program and is now facing criminal charges in Juvenile Court.

Meanwhile in Florida, legislation is advancing that would prevent school districts from punishing students for "brandishing a partially consumed pastry or other food item to simulate a firearm or weapon." It is called the Pop-Tart Bill.  After it passes, the law will probably need to be amended to include food items that can be used to simulate a weapon without first being partially consumed (Banana used as gun in holdup, then eaten).

When it becomes necessary for a legislature to carve out an exception for food items that might appear dangerous, it is clear that zero-tolerance policies are a failed social experiment.

The experts have weighed in on the question, and so has the Obama Administration.

2/19/2014

McDonalds Mocked for Remarkable Stress Hormone Discovery?

Banksy gives foot massage 
to relieve an executive's stress. 

New York City minimum wage workers have organized at FastFoodForward.org, thinking that McDonalds is going to give them a raise. They are just poor people complaining about poverty, so to get attention, these activists decided to mock McDonalds. It’s not rocket science and the company is fair game. 

The headlines at Salon.com caught my eye: McDonalds tells workers to ‘sing away stress’ and ‘chew away cares’ … Stress hormone levels rise by 15% after ten minutes of complaining … giant corporation warns employees.

Pulled from the web the day after Christmas, the “McResource Line” must have been the work of consultants hired by HR. 

How else can you explain why a company that takes pride in cooking with healthy low-acid Canadian rapeseed oil (canola) would advise that olive oil can prevent the blues?  

Maybe they were trying to send a message to B.B. King?

The employees were also told:  “two vacations a year can cut heart attack risk by 50%.” 

5/13/2013

Aaron Antonovsky's insight on observing Holocaust survivors.

An interview I gave to the Sacramento Bee was published this morning.  I was asked about the escape of Amanda Berry with her child, and the rescue of two other women after years being caged in a house in Cleveland by a sadist.

When interviewed,  I discussed an observation about Holocaust survivors that was made by the late Aaron Antonovsky,  an American-born medical sociologist (doctorate from Yale) who made his career at the Israel Institute for Applied Social Research in Jerusalem.

Antonovsky is not as well known as he should be.  To the extent that he is known,  it is for "a theory" that he called the sense of coherence and a term he coined:  salutogenesis.