psychology notes.

This site was originally created in 2009 as a virtual repository for all of the various psychology and therapy-related things (quotes, articles, videos, music, pictures) I came across both online and in my work as a psychotherapist. It has morphed into something slightly different in the past four years, and is now perhaps slightly more outward facing, but is still at heart a place for me to collect and share things related to the life of the mind.


Disclaimer: Posting something to this site does not mean that I necessarily agree with or endorse the opinions being expressed therein. All text on this site is informational and for educational purposes only. This site is not meant to be a substitute for professional mental health or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified mental health provider with any questions regarding a medical condition or mental health issue. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this site.


And please, be kind to one another.


Are we measuring basic facts about children? Or basic facts about rich kids?

by Jane Hu

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past few years, I’ve gotten used to lots of things that would probably seem strange in other cities. Commuting on a unicycle? Sure. Rampant midday nudity? Everywhere. Vegan dinner fundraiser for your Burning Man art car? Of course. So I hardly bat an eye when a 4-year-old says, “My favorite food is edamame.”

As a developmental psychologist, I test children to learn basic facts about kids, such as how they learn language, navigate social interactions, and gain knowledge. These things seem like they should work about the same way for any young human. But there is growing evidence that the timing and efficiency with which children learn these general skills vary a lot based on experience. A huge amount of a child’s early life experience is determined by the family’s socioeconomic status—how wealthy and educated the child’s parents are. The edamame-loving professors’ kids I’ve been testing are unlikely to be representative of an average child, or even an average American child.

There’s a term to describe the types of people who participate in most social science studies: WEIRD. They are weird in the sense that they are unusual compared with most of the world’s population, but WEIRD is also an acronym describing the white, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic culture they come from. A trio of psychology professors coined this term in a 2010 paper, pointing out that fields studying human behavior often use participants who are “Western, and more specifically American, undergraduates.”

(full story here)

US goalkeeper Tim Howard, who had a record-setting World Cup game today (despite the unfortunate 2-1 loss to Belgium), has been dealing with Tourette’s syndrome and OCD issues since childhood. This article and accompanying video details Howard’s struggles and his continuing efforts to inspire others and dispel the myths and ignorance around TS and associated disorders:

"The United States goalkeeper in his third World Cup doesn’t mind being asked about Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disorder he has suffered from since childhood.

In fact, despite it being cruelly used to single him out early in his career he welcomes the inquiry and embraces the condition, proud of having controlled it and determined to raise awareness for the benefit of others afflicted.

He might be the most ideal ambassador for a cause that you can imagine, living proof that those with Tourette’s are normal people with the potential to be exceptional. And, with a brush of humor, he dispels the myth that it is simply a condition that makes you swear a lot.

"You know, we don’t all curse," smiled Howard, in an exclusive interview with Yahoo Sports. "I do on the field, unfortunately, to get my point across, but it’s not because of my condition.

"It’s defined as involuntary motor tics, twitches if you like. Some of it is blinking, clearing my throat, different muscle tensing of different body parts. Unfortunately it’s misconstrued and portrayed in a comical way, particularly in Hollywood and movies and stuff." "

Knowledge is important, but only if we’re being kind and gentle with ourselves as we work to discover who we are.
Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

by Mark Epstein

Talking with my 88-year-old mother, four and a half years after my father died from a brain tumor, I was surprised to hear her questioning herself. “You’d think I would be over it by now,” she said, speaking of the pain of losing my father, her husband of almost 60 years. “It’s been more than four years, and I’m still upset.”

I’m not sure if I became a psychiatrist because my mother liked to talk to me in this way when I was young or if she talks to me this way now because I became a psychiatrist, but I was pleased to have this conversation with her. Grief needs to be talked about. When it is held too privately it tends to eat away at its own support.

“Trauma never goes away completely,” I responded. “It changes perhaps, softens some with time, but never completely goes away. What makes you think you should be completely over it? I don’t think it works that way.” There was a palpable sense of relief as my mother considered my opinion.

“I don’t have to feel guilty that I’m not over it?” she asked. “It took 10 years after my first husband died,” she remembered suddenly, thinking back to her college sweetheart, to his sudden death from a heart condition when she was in her mid-20s, a few years before she met my father. “I guess I could give myself a break.”

I never knew about my mother’s first husband until I was playing Scrabble one day when I was 10 or 11 and opened her weather-beaten copy of Webster’s Dictionary to look up a word. There, on the inside of the front cover, in her handwriting, was her name inscribed in black ink. Only it wasn’t her current name (and it wasn’t her maiden name). It was another, unfamiliar name, not Sherrie Epstein but Sherrie Steinbach: an alternative version of my mother at once entirely familiar (in her distinctive hand) and utterly alien.

“What’s this?” I remember asking her, holding up the faded blue dictionary, and the story came tumbling out. It was rarely spoken of thereafter, at least until my father died half a century later, at which point my mother began to bring it up, this time of her own volition. I’m not sure that the trauma of her first husband’s death had ever completely disappeared; it seemed to be surfacing again in the context of my father’s death.

Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster. One way or another, death (and its cousins: old age, illness, accidents, separation and loss) hangs over all of us. Nobody is immune. Our world is unstable and unpredictable, and operates, to a great degree and despite incredible scientific advancement, outside our ability to control it.

My response to my mother — that trauma never goes away completely — points to something I have learned through my years as a psychiatrist. In resisting trauma and in defending ourselves from feeling its full impact, we deprive ourselves of its truth. As a therapist, I can testify to how difficult it can be to acknowledge one’s distress and to admit one’s vulnerability. My mother’s knee-jerk reaction, “Shouldn’t I be over this by now?” is very common. There is a rush to normal in many of us that closes us off, not only to the depth of our own suffering but also, as a consequence, to the suffering of others.

When disasters strike we may have an immediate empathic response, but underneath we are often conditioned to believe that “normal” is where we all should be. The victims of the Boston Marathon bombings will take years to recover. Soldiers returning from war carry their battlefield experiences within. Can we, as a community, keep these people in our hearts for years? Or will we move on, expecting them to move on, the way the father of one of my friends expected his 4-year-old son — my friend — to move on after his mother killed herself, telling him one morning that she was gone and never mentioning her again?

IN 1969, after working with terminally ill patients, the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross brought the trauma of death out of the closet with the publication of her groundbreaking work, “On Death and Dying.” She outlined a five-stage model of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Her work was radical at the time. It made death a normal topic of conversation, but had the inadvertent effect of making people feel, as my mother did, that grief was something to do right.

Mourning, however, has no timetable. Grief is not the same for everyone. And it does not always go away. The closest one can find to a consensus about it among today’s therapists is the conviction that the healthiest way to deal with trauma is to lean into it, rather than try to keep it at bay. The reflexive rush to normal is counterproductive. In the attempt to fit in, to be normal, the traumatized person (and this is most of us) feels estranged.

While we are accustomed to thinking of trauma as the inevitable result of a major cataclysm, daily life is filled with endless little traumas. Things break. People hurt our feelings. Ticks carry Lyme disease. Pets die. Friends get sick and even die.

“They’re shooting at our regiment now,” a 60-year-old friend said the other day as he recounted the various illnesses of his closest acquaintances. “We’re the ones coming over the hill.” He was right, but the traumatic underpinnings of life are not specific to any generation. The first day of school and the first day in an assisted-living facility are remarkably similar. Separation and loss touch everyone.

I was surprised when my mother mentioned that it had taken her 10 years to recover from her first husband’s death. That would have made me 6 or 7, I thought to myself, by the time she began to feel better. My father, while a compassionate physician, had not wanted to deal with that aspect of my mother’s history. When she married him, she gave her previous wedding’s photographs to her sister to hold for her. I never knew about them or thought to ask about them, but after my father died, my mother was suddenly very open about this hidden period in her life. It had been lying in wait, rarely spoken of, for 60 years.

My mother was putting herself under the same pressure in dealing with my father’s death as she had when her first husband died. The earlier trauma was conditioning the later one, and the difficulties were only getting compounded. I was glad to be a psychiatrist and grateful for my Buddhist inclinations when speaking with her. I could offer her something beyond the blandishments of the rush to normal.

The willingness to face traumas — be they large, small, primitive or fresh — is the key to healing from them. They may never disappear in the way we think they should, but maybe they don’t need to. Trauma is an ineradicable aspect of life. We are human as a result of it, not in spite of it.

Mark Epstein is a psychiatrist and the author, most recently, of the forthcoming book “The Trauma of Everyday Life.”

"Our wisdom is all mixed up with what we call our neurosis. Our brilliance, our juiciness, our spiciness, is all mixed up with our craziness and our confusion, and therefore it doesn’t do any any good to try to get rid of our so-called negative aspects, because in that process we also get rid of our basic wonderfulness."

—Pema Chodron

One of the most profound and universal realizations of later childhood, a realization that probably is never totally integrated, is the discovery that one’s parents are not necessarily representative of the human species, that one has grown up in an idiosyncratically structured family with its own peculiarities and dramas.
Stephen A. Mitchell, Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis

"If you have a conversation with Ellie, her creators say, she will be able to suss out symptoms of anxiety, depression, and—of particular interest to DARPA—PTSD. The avatar can also, they say, help to prepare soldiers before they’ve gone to the battlefield. ”You want to train people on non-verbal behaviors,” Morency puts it; so, for example, soldiers can be attuned to subtle facial cues from people they might encounter in a theater of war. 

Morency and his team have been demonstrating Ellie and her fellow virtual-psychologists in Los Angeles, to people curious about what it’s like to be analyzed by an avatar. So far, more than 500 people have talked to her. And—here’s the surprising thing—they seem to enjoy the experience. The set time for each demo was initially 15 minutes; Morency says people kept extending their time with Ellie, however—up to 30 minutes. That’s because, Morency figures, “they don’t feel judged” by her.

And that’s in turn because, as he puts it:

"Ellie is an interviewer, but she is there as a computer. She doesn’t have judgment directly. So people love talking to her…. they’re more themselves. They’re really expressing and showing something that usually if you know that people are around you—or as an interviewer—they think, ‘Oh, I’m going to be careful.’ But with Ellie, they’re more themselves."

Morency compares the appeal, actually, to that of pets. “People, after talking to Ellie, they feel better,” he points out. “Some people talk to their dogs; even though the dogs don’t understand it… I think there’s a little bit of that effect—just talking with someone makes you feel better.” 

Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
Helen Keller

"Reading a lot about the science of human behavior can make you cynical, sometimes deservedly so, but cynical nonetheless…The world is not always fair. The bad are not always punished and the good do not always prevail.

But there are plenty of reasons, scientifically tested, to have hope and be positive about the future…”

Both hope and despair are self-fulfilling prophecies.