On trauma and the marshmallow test.

On trauma and the marshmallow test.

We were walking our dogs past our neighbor Katie’s house when she stepped onto her front porch. Katie is a philosophy professor specializing in the works of David Hume. She is also a phenomenal baker of holiday treats (her collection of cookie cutters is prodigious) and a generous guardian to several cats.

“Your flowers look beautiful!” we called out from about twenty-five feet away.

“I hope they don’t die right away,” she said. Then she shook her head and laughed. “God, what a year. They do look beautiful. And that’s the first thing I thought?”

We’re feeling traumatized. Nearly all of us.

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The marshmallow test: a researcher leaves a young child in a room with a marshmallow. “You can eat it now, but I’ll be back in ten minutes, and if the marshmallow is still there, you’ll get to have two.”

The marshmallow test has been written about extensively. The children who waited used a variety of strategies to distract themselves from temptation, like closing their eyes or singing to themselves.

Some children impulsively ate the marshmallow. Here’s a treat, nom nom nom! But the children who waited, the researchers reported, grew up to be more successful.

A variety of claims were made, like that the willpower needed to delay gratification allowed children to prioritize their futures, to keep struggling and striving even when things were hard, to turn down drugs and alcohol.

Here’s another interpretation: children who have been through trauma might be making a perfectly logical decision if they eat the marshmallow right away. Because lots of kids have been taught, by past experience, that despite a recently met grown-up’s promise, waiting might cause them to get zero marshmallows, not two.

If a child has learned that any situation might suddenly turn dangerous, they might not feel safe closing their eyes to ignore the marshmallow. If a child has learned that the money and food often run out by the end of the month, they might rightfully eat treats when there’s still a chance.

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The pandemic has made me more impulsive. Like my neighbor Katie, I worry that the beautiful flowers might die –almost to the point of forgetting to enjoy them while they last.

Like a child, I worry that the marshmallow might be gone.

I am – or at least, I have been for almost my entire life – a patient, resilient person. My graduate degree took six years. I merrily undertook a writing project that lasted another six. I’m raising children, which feels both hectic and achingly slow.

But right now, I can feel it in myself. Signing up for a vaccine and having the appointment be two and a half weeks away! felt interminable. Every delay aches. The future feels like a distant blur.

Especially amid all the outbreaks of violence – mass shootings in the national news, seemingly unrelated spates of murders in our local paper, all of them likely rooted in impulsiveness, isolation, & stress – delaying any source of joy feels agonizing. As though we might not make it another whole week, or month, or year.

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Today, at least, I set aside time in the morning for self-care. I dropped the kids off at school. I went for a fast run, five kilometers just under eighteen minutes. I stretched.

Most importantly, I took the time to meditate.

Meditation is the marshmallow test writ small.

Set a timer for twenty minutes. Sit down. Close your eyes. Choose some small phrase, meaningful or not – “sat nam,” “love more,” “I am calm” – and intone it silently in your mind, half as you breathe in, half as you breathe out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Your mind might wander – if you notice, try to resume your small phrase. Silently repeated sound can anchor you, give yourself space to wash away some mental turmoil.

And, if you are like me, you’ll want to open your eyes and be done with it. This is taking forever! See if you can stay. Keep your eyes closed. Repeat your phrase, and breathe.

If you can last the entire time – well, no researcher will bring you a second marshmallow. But you’ll still receive a gift. A bit of inner peace that wasn’t there before.

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I could not have passed the marshmallow test yesterday.

I meditated.

I could probably pass today.

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header image by Kate Ter Haar on flickr

On re-watching The Matrix, twenty years later.

On re-watching The Matrix, twenty years later.

The Matrix is an incredible film.  The cinematography is gorgeous. The major themes – mind control, the nature of free will, and what it means to reject the system – are no less relevant today than when the Wachowski sisters first made their masterpiece.

The Matrix also features many, many guns.

Graffiti in a tunnel in London. Photograph by Duncan C. on Flickr.

I recently read many of Grant Morrison’s comics.  After The Invisibles, which was rumored to have a major impact on the visual style of The Matrix, I felt inspired to re-watch the film. 

For the most part, I still loved it.  But the action scenes were, for me, a person whose spouse is a school teacher, viscerally unpleasant.

On my spouse’s second day of student teaching in northern California, a child arrived at her school with an assortment of lethal weapons that included a chain saw and several pipe bombs.  The child was tackled; the bombs did not explode; nobody died.  Media coverage was minimal, even in the local news.

On multiple occasions, classes at her schools have been canceled due to credible threats of violence.  A few years ago, a student lingered after the bell, wanting to talk.  “I have a friend who I’m a little worried about …”  Later, after this kid had unspooled more details to a guidance counselor, police officers came.  The troubled student was sent away for treatment.  Once again, nobody died.  Media coverage was, to the best of my knowledge, nonexistent, even in the local paper.

Crisis averted, right?  No need to alarm everyone with a write-up, a terrifying enumeration of the arsenal retrieved from a student’s locker.  Although, in a town this small (population: one hundred thousand), plenty of people heard rumors through the whisper network.

Students today are growing up with far more stress than I experienced.  Among top students, more emphasis is placed on applying for college, and the process of getting accepted to the “best” schools is more arduous.  There are more AP classes, more clubs to join, more service projects to undertake, plus the pressure of having some uniquely-honed skill that marks the possessor as somehow deserving of a spot at schools like Harvard, Stanford, or Yale.

That’s rough. 

Only a subset of students are subject to those particular torments, though.

But also, simply existing has grown more stressful for kids.  For every single student inside the building.

Growing up in a house where the parents are seething with rage, slowly and arduously divorcing, is pretty hard on children.  That is now a burden that all students have to bear.  The political atmosphere of the United States is like a nation-wide divorce, with the two dominant political parties unwilling to agree on common norms, or even facts. 

When individual people argue, they often cloister their perceptions inside bubbles of internally-consistent narration.  It’s quite common for each parent to sincerely believe that the other is doing less than a fair share of the housework.  There obviously is an objective truth, and you could probably figure out what it is – by installing security cameras throughout their home, a couple could calculate exactly how many chores were being done by each person.  But in the moment, they just shout.  “Well, I unloaded the dishwasher five times this week, and I was cooking dinner!”

I have a pretty extreme political bias – I’m against regulating behaviors that don’t seem to hurt anyone else (which adult(s) a person marries, what drugs a person consumes), and I’m in favor of regulating behaviors that endanger a person’s neighbors (dumping pollutants, possessing weaponry).  But I also talk to a lot of different folks, and I live in the Midwest.  It’s pretty easy to see why a person with different religious beliefs than mine would find my political stance immoral, if not downright nonsensical.

The Republican Party – which by and large espouses political beliefs that I disagree with vehemently – is correct that the United States was originally founded as a Christian nation.  The underlying philosophy of our constitution draws upon the Bible.  And the Bible does not promote gendered or racial equality.  In the Old Testament, the Bible tells the story of a people who were chosen by God for greatness.  In the New Testament, the story is revised such that all people, by accepting Jesus as lord and savior, can join the elect; still, the New Testament draws a stark contrast between us and them.

From a Biblical point of view, it’s reasonable to subject outsiders to harm in order to improve the circumstances of your own people.  Indeed, it would be immoral to do otherwise. 

It’s like Alan Greenspan’s devotion to the concept of Pareto Optimality, in a way (“Pareto Optimality” is the idea that a distribution of goods and resources, no matter how unequal, is “optimal” if there is no way to improve anyone’s circumstances without making at least one other person worse off.  Even a situation in which one person owns the world and no one else has anything is Pareto Optimal, because you can’t help the masses without taking something from that singular world owner). 

Using an expensive jar of oil to anoint Jesus’s feet is fine: she was helping the elect.  It was be worse to sell that oil and use the money to aid non-Christians, because then your actions only reduce the well-being of God’s people.  (Within a New Testament worldview, the possibility for future conversion complicates things somewhat, but if you knew that someone would never embrace the Lord, then you’d be wrong to help that person at the expense of your fellow Christians.)

And so it’s perfectly reasonable that people who vote for the Republican Party support policies that I abhor.  I wouldn’t want to be married to those people … but, by virtue of the social contract that we were born into, we are constitutionally bound together.  And we’re bickering.  Endlessly, maliciously, in ways that are damaging our children.

Worse, kids at school are subject to the constant fear that they’ll be murdered at their desks.  Horrific stories are routinely broadcast on the national news … and, as I’ve realized from my spouse’s teaching career, the stories we’ve all heard about are only a fraction of the terrifying incidents that students live in dread of.

Student protest at the White House to protest gun laws. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not the fault of The Matrix.  But this film sculpted the initial style for school shootings.  The Matrix was released on March 31st, 1999.  Twenty days later, on the day celebrated both by potheads (based on the police code for marijuana) and white nationalists (because it’s Hitler’s birthday), a pair of students murdered many classmates at Colombine High School.

In The Matrix, a character named Morpheus explains:

The Matrix is a system, Neo.  That system is our enemy.  But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see?  Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters.  The very minds of the people we are trying to save.  But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemies.

The murderers saw their classmates as enemies.

You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged.  And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

Within the world of the film, this mutability is made explicit: any character who has not joined the heavily-armed heroes could blur and become an Agent.  The beautiful woman in red, an unhoused alcoholic man bundled in blankets – either might suddenly mutate into a threat. 

And so Neo kills.  He and Trinity acquire military-grade weaponry; they stroll into a government building and murder everyone inside.

Anyone willing to complacently work there is, after all, the enemy.

I teach poetry classes inside a jail.  Through Pages to Prisoners, I send free books to people throughout the country.  I think that the criminal justice system in the United States is pretty abhorrent.

But that doesn’t mean the people who work within that system as corrections officers are bad. They have families to feed.  And many are surely aware that if too few people worked as corrections officers, leading the facilities to be understaffed, the people incarcerated inside would be much less safe.

Experience lets me appreciate nuance.  I am an ethical vegan; good people choose to become butchers.  I don’t like our criminal justice system; good people work inside.

When I was a teenager, though, I felt moral certitude.  I didn’t like school.  And so, if you were the sort of drone who could sit contentedly at your desk, I didn’t like you.  And, yes, I too had notebooks where I’d written the sort of vitriolic short stories about leveling the place with a Golden-Eye-(the N64 game, not the movie)-style grenade launcher, an onscreen point counter tracking deaths.  Yes, my friends and I made short films with BB gun props full of senseless killings.

One of my old notebooks that I must have deemed sufficiently innocuous to save.

I remember one of the films we made as being pretty good.  But after Colombine, we destroyed the video tapes.  I threw my notebooks away.

And I was pissed to be called so often to the principal’s office.  I understand now why they were worried.  Moral certainty is dangerous; it lets you consider people who disagree as the enemy.

Twenty years later, my body stiffened and my heart sank when I watched The Matrix.  I loved that movie; I’m not sure I’ll ever see it again.

And, glory be, I am now blessed to live in a nation led by a president who feels nothing if not moral certainty.

On nature.

On nature.

The modern world is a stressful place – some medical doctors advocate “therapeutic” nature walks.  Surround yourself with trees, wildlife, a babbling stream or waterfall, and your body will remember what it means to be alive.

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Image by Steven Depolo on Flickr.

For millions of years, our ancestors needed specific environments in order to survive.  Almost every animal species experiences instinctual urges toward healthful habitats – it would be surprising if our own minds didn’t have a residual response toward landscapes that provide what our forebears needed.  Running water, trees for shelter, grassy meadows to hunt, fecund animal life suggesting a thriving ecosystem.

But people who need to heal are cut off from these environs.

When somebody doesn’t fit in our world, they wind up in jail.  Maybe this person has trouble holding down a job and so forged checks, or counterfeited money, or robbed a store.  Maybe somebody is plagued by nightmares and takes methamphetamine to forgo sleep.  Or shoots opiates to stave off the pain of withdrawal.  Maybe somebody has so much tension and anger that he threw a television at his girlfriend.

These are people who’d probably benefit from a de-stressing stroll through the woods.

Instead, they’re surrounded by concrete, in a clanging, reverberating room with 25-foot-high ceilings, locked doors stacked atop each other, steel tables, boaters crowding the floor (with two tiers of 8 double-occupancy cells, the jail could hold 32 per block … but most have wobbled between 35 and 40 people all year, with the excess sleeping on plastic “boats” on the common area floor.  Things were worst in July, when they were so many inmates that the jail ran out of boats – then people slept on a blanket spread directly over the concrete), toilets overflowing with the excreta of many men shitting their way through withdrawal.

grow posterIn the classroom where I teach poetry, there’s a picture of a redwood forest.  It’s shot from the ground, the trunks soaring up to the canopy overhead, and at the bottom of the poster there’s the word “GROW” above a corny quote from Ronald Reagan.

Stephen “Greazy” Sapp wrote the following poem at the end of class one day; he’d spent almost the whole hour staring at the picture of those trees:

 

GROW

Greazy

 

I want to live to see things grow –

From the fury of a great storm, started from

A single drop –

To the ten foot tree from one tiny seed, one sheet

Of paper as from any other tree

Knocked down by a great storm –

The child who grew from a seed in the spouse

Of the man who held paper from the tree –

Maybe the seed buried in his mind could become

Greater in life than the tree that withstood

The storm, now given opportunity to transform

Into stories – of future, generations who dwell

In the single rain drop in

The forest of days to come –

 

Greazy told me that he loves plants.

(My inclination is to use people’s first names as a sign of respect, but he told me not to – “nobody calls me ‘Stephen’ unless they’re mad about something.  You know, like, my grandma, if she was pissed, I might hear her yell, like, Stephen!  Even the cops.  They pulled up one day, they were like, ‘Greazy, come here, we want to talk to you,’ I knew everything was fine.  They were like, ‘look, man, we know you’re selling pot … but stay up near 17th street or something.  We don’t want you downtown, selling it to college kids.’  But then, another day, they came down, spotted me, said ‘Stephen, get over here!’ I was like, ‘man, I know they’re gonna haul me in.’ ”)

Greazy was in the jail all through autumn, waiting on his trial, and he told me that one day he was sitting in his cell on the fourth floor, watching a leaf blowing around on the sidewalk down below, and he found himself thinking, “Man, I’d sign whatever, I’d take whatever plea they wanted, if they’d just let me out there, get to look up close at that little leaf.”

Another man told me that he felt so starved for the world that he started gardening inside the jail.  He didn’t want for me to include his name but graciously allowed me to share his story.  Here’s a poem I wrote:

 

OUR MAN GROWS AN ORANGE TREE

 

by sprouting seeds in a paper towel,

planting one in dust & dirt

he collected scraping his fingers along

each corner of the concrete walls,

& using an Irish Spring soap box as a shelf

to lift his sapling to the light.

 

Our man only wanted to

oxygenate his air

but soon the whole block shuffles by

checking on the tree each day.

They’re surprised that it survived,

but proud to see it grow

until the warden declares it contraband.

 

Young_orange_tree

On witchcraft and mass psychogenic illness.

On witchcraft and mass psychogenic illness.

SalemWitchcraftTrial_large

Because she is N’s best friend’s grandmother, I recently had the pleasure of meeting the researcher who first proposed that the Salem witchcraft trials were inspired by ergot poisoning of rye crops.  And that, of course, is one of the papers I read while researching mass psychogenic illness / conversion disorders / violence against women.

Does it seem controversial to throw that last categorization in there?

Here’s a quick summary: mass psychogenic illness is typically diagnosed when people exhibit strange behavior and those who are making the diagnosis do not know why.  If an episode involves more women than men, that’s considered an indication of mass psychogenic illness — even for contemporary diagnoses, actually, although we now know that women & men metabolize many small molecules differently, which means that equal ingested dosage will often result in higher blood levels for women.

Maybe you read about the recent episode in New York (if not, I’d recommend another lovely article by Susan Dominus, “What Happened to the Girls in Le Roy”).  Teenagers started twitching.  Mostly young women were affected, environmental analysis identified no known toxins, doctors decided it was mass psychogenic illness.

There are non-psychological reasons to believe that certain episodes of strange behavior, tics, convulsions, etc., would affect primarily women, but ever since the diagnosis of “hysteria” was first proposed (in which the womb forgets that it’s supposed to reside near a woman’s belly and begins to wander her body, eventually latching onto the brain and causing her to act strange) the medical community has assumed that most women’s problems are in their heads.

Which isn’t to say that strange behavior like tics, convulsions, etc., cannot have an exclusively neurological cause.  It can.  There are physiological problems that can be caused solely by the brain — usually the initial onset is accompanied by high stress — and, unfortunately, the symptoms also recursively change the brain.  It’s a little bit silly to try to distinguish between psychological and physiological problems, what with the brain also being part of the body, but with conversion disorders an ailment that began as thought will eventually become detectably imprinted in matter.

In case you’re interested, here’s a nice open-source reference by Ali et al. discussing this loop.

Despite my reflexive distaste for most of Malcolm Gladwell’s pithy summaries about how the world works — I’ve read enough social psychology papers to know that the findings are often much weaker than they seem when filtered through popular writing — that lovely phrase “the tipping point” seems very appropriate when thinking about mass psychogenic illness.  There are two stable equilibria that you could roughly designate “acting strange” and “acting normal,” and at some intermediate point they transition sharply from one to the other.

Here, I can draw a graph for you, using tarantism as a model case.  Tarantism, you ask?  People thought that spider bites would be fatal unless those bitten began to dance… so circa the 1380s, every summer there was wild, obscene dancing from Italians trying mightily to stave off death.

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It’s the fact that the amount of dancing in turn contributes to the likelihood of more dancing, that lends the situation a tipping point.  All else being equal, a world in which not many people are dancing will result in little dancing in the future, a world full of revelry will produce more rambunctious behavior.

And there’s a point in the middle, when a small number of people have been affected, that could just as easily swing one way or the other… by next week the “danger” may have passed, or there might be a tremendous outbreak of tarantism.

(Also, my apologies to any math people out there … I realize that this is a nonstandard way to represent an ODE.  I’ve been working on a post about the uncertainty principle and trying to think of ways to use basic math to convey a decent “feel” for complicated equations.  Which is difficult, and is made even more so by the fact that I am so out of practice; since beginning my thesis research project, I’ve never had professional reasons to use anything more complicated than statistics.)

To reach a tipping point, though, there have to be many people experiencing similar levels of stress, along with whatever else might be needed to initiate a conversion disorder.  Which is why I think it’s reasonable to think that outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness are a symptom of pervasive violence against women.  They tend to occur primarily amongst people who have limited opportunities for self-expression: overworked schoolchildren, prisoners, convent residents, and women living in restrictive societies.

Salem_Witch_trial_engravingAnd it is of course possible for other factors to contribute.  That’s the main message I took away from Caporael’s ergotism study — for young women living in puritanical New England, who believed that witchcraft was a very real threat, it wouldn’t take much to push them over the edge.  Exposure to a psychedelic drug could potentially do it.

Which isn’t to say that lysergic acid makes people condemn their compatriots as witches.  Like most drugs, its effects are dictated largely by the mindset of whomever ingests it.  I think this passage from Ronald Siegel’s Intoxication (a somewhat strange book discussing drug use by a variety of animal species) phrases this well:

“Violent people are often intoxicated but the violence is usually rooted in the personality, not the drug.  People may panic under the influence of LSD or any other drug that makes them feel different. . .”

Caporael addressed this in her paper — the idea that neither ergot alone, nor a belief in witchcraft alone, would have resulted in the trials — and suggested that the paucity of similar accusations during that time period lends further credence to the ergotism hypothesis.

“The Puritans’ belief in witchcraft was a totally accepted part of their religious tenets.  The malicious workings of Satan and his cohorts was just as real to the early colonists as their belief in God.  Yet, the low incidence of witchcraft trials in New England prior to 1692 suggests that the Puritans did not always resort to accusations of black magic to deal with irreconcilable differences or inexplicable events.”

Altogether, it’s a nice little paper.  Plus — and this is something I didn’t realize when I first read it — it’s a single-author Science paper written by a twenty-something year-old graduate student based on research she’d done as an undergrad.  The only publication I have from my undergraduate research is an author contribution buried somewhere in the middle of a long list of researchers… for an article that landed in Blood.  Somewhat lower tier than Science.

Ergot growing on rye.

In fact, my only real objection to Caporael’s paper doesn’t address the underlying research.  It’s that I believe the ergotism hypothesis lets the perpetrators of the Salem witchcraft trials off too easily.  Hearing that the accusers might have inadvertently ingested psychedelic drugs (for months!) might make their actions sound less heinous.

And, look, we’ll never know for sure.  Salem’s inhabitants might’ve been under the influence of lysergic acid for that whole time period.

But I think it’s worth pointing out that similar abuses have occurred in the absence of any confounding psychedelics.  Outbreaks of a wide variety of diseases in Europe caused people to blame and murder their jewish neighbors.  Outbreaks of a wide variety of social strife in the United States caused people to blame and murder their black neighbors.  Even the Stanford Prison Experiment documents how easily an imposed worldview can bring forth evil.

If those Stanford students had been indoctrinated from birth to believe in witchcraft and an omnipresent Satan striving to destroy their society, they probably could’ve been convinced to start dunking their classmates in order to identify the witch.

My brother & me. Luckily no one accused us of witchcraft; given our garb, I doubt we coulda beat the rap.
My brother & me. Luckily no one accused us of witchcraft; given our garb, I doubt we coulda beat the rap.