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[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, June 2014]

    American psychologist, Herman Witkin, proposed in 1962 an interesting model for how people think.  It’s been subjected to all kinds of research and criticism over the past half century, or course.  So I find it gives a useful continuum for people that dovetails well with my own professional experience.

    Witkin suggested that some of us think in a context-INDEPENDENT way, and others in a DEPENDENT way.  What does this mean?

    Context-independent thinkers (CITs) can figure out problems that only have a limited number of solutions.  They’re able to tune out Real World “noise,” that isn’t relevant to the problem at hand, and focus only on the solutions possible within the situation.  These are the folks who are good at math, Sudoku, number puzzles and computer programming.  Each of those domains is basically self-contained; all the information you need to figure them out is given to you out front, you just need the ability to shuffle it around or arrange it in your head.  No outside experience is necessary.  For that reason, context-independent thinkers tend to shine early in life.  They’re the “math brains,” the “computer whizzes,” the precocious kids who outperform even many of the adults in their lives as early as grade school.

    By contrast, context-dependent thinkers (CDTs) tend to come into their abilities a little later in life.  This is because unlike their precocious peers, they must draw on their own life experiences, study how others approach the problem and make conclusions for what has worked in the past.  You have to have a past to be able to draw on it.  Rather than excel at “air tight” problems, with preexisting strategies and limited solutions, they do better with figuring out “open ended” problems, where solutions have to be assembled by building relationships with others, exploring resources and often stitching together combinations of strategies based on best judgement.  CDTs are more comfortable with ambiguity, since the “messy” situations in which they excel simply don’t have clean, ready-made solutions waiting to be uncovered by a discerning intellect.  If CITs excel at space, time and numbers, CDTs are better with literature, history or social science; areas whose problems can’t be separated from the contexts of culture, human nature and past experience.   

    Each type has benefits and drawbacks.

    CITs, for example, are more likely to jump from one problem to the next.  They are passionate and invested in solving problems, often working long hours and neglecting food or sleep to find an answer.  However, since their abilities mature quickly, they tend to use up challenges fast and want to move on to the next challenge immediately.  Since they peak quickly, they have less chance to learn frustration tolerance.  One of the biggest challenges they may face is that of boredom; they struggle with sustaining effort and focus on activities that aren’t always fascinating or that have necessary “slog” elements to them that have to be endured.  This inability so sustain interest means they may accomplish less on longer-term projects than their relevant talents would suggest.

    CDTs, on the other hand, must contend with the frustrations and setbacks that come of late-maturing capabilities.  Have you had the experience, for example, of struggling with school work, and despite your best efforts, you squeak by with a barely sufficient grade, while a classmate or sibling who “never cracked a book” seemed to always get high marks?  Enduring and persevering against this constant uphill struggle can be quite discouraging at younger ages.  One of the biggest challenges CDTs may face is that of morale or self-esteem.  On the other hand, they will ultimately learn the value of patience better than their CIT counterparts, and can take on long-term projects whose drudge elements must be endured before the rewards become apparent.        

    Of course, I always extend a word of caution with these types of useful typologies, as no one fits into them perfectly.  People are complex.  But as a model, Witkins idea may help explain some of the frustrations you’ve experienced based on which type you most favor.


[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, May 2014]

   In February, I had the honor of giving a presentation to the Madison County Homemakers.  But I think I learned more from them.  What struck me was how willing members of this body of distinguished ladies were to share resources.  And not just their money and delicious foodstuffs, but psychological resources. 

    We use the term “psychological resources” frequently in mental health.  We diagnose people as being “low” on them.  We describe capacity for them while consulting with each other in staff meetings.  However, it’s in examples like the Homemakers’ where I realized we counselors don’t really define the term well.  I think it might be important to do that, since your resources are the mortar and bricks for psychological work. 

    Let’s try this:  A psychological resource is a pool of aid that you can tap to help you respond well to life’s vicissitudes.  Now let’s discuss three examples:

1.  RELATIONSHIPS.  Whatever the social networking world says about “friends,” all social connections in your life are not created equally.  Some have more distant orbits from you and your concerns.  Regardless of how you laughed and shared together at the water cooler in that workplace from five years ago, some contacts have comparably less to offer.  Know who understands you, how much they can provide support, and the limits their own personal problems place on their responses. 

    Blood being thicker than water, as the saying goes, family are often the first people we consider when we need support.  Be aware, though, that while family may have stronger ties of obligation, along with such ties can also come old resentments and jealousies which can develop from sharing closer emotional circumstances.  Older family members–parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles–often have warm feelings toward you, but they can also carry a frozen image of you in their minds, a “you” far younger than you are now.  So before you tap the smart phone and call them, be sure they’ll take your adult concerns into consideration and not see you instead as a distraught teenager. 

2.  MEANING.  Some life events are simply not changeable.  For example, death of a loved one, termination from a job, chronic illness.  Here, you need the resource of skilled meaning-making.  How can you use a bad event to spur you in a positive direction you may not have considered without it?  Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl stated that if we are to weather traumatic events, we must love something or make something.  Write a journal, pick a new career path, or dedicate your life to bettering others.  The ability to get beyond the negative change and use it meaningfully is a measure of this resource.  And one for which counselors are ideally suited to help you.

3.  WORDS/EDUCATION.  As a teenager, I slipped on icy porch steps, fell on my back and knocked my wind out.  Ow.  My father asked desperately if I was alright, what was wrong, why wasn’t I answering!?  Without any breath, I couldn’t say anything!  Finally, my lungs spasmed, I drew air, all was well. 

    On a psychological level, we’ve all had that experience of the “blob of badness” which others want to understand so they can help us.  But since we can’t articulate exactly what is wrong, everyone is frustrated.  The most common phrase I hear from clients?  “I wish I could explain it to you.”  Luckily, the more we study, and learn new vocabulary, the more educational resources we have to express ourselves.  We have to learn the language of suffering.  That’s why pop music about lost love or tragedy can become so famous; because many people find in it a way that they lack themselves for expressing pain. 

    Some resources, we can increase.  Others are more difficult, limited by factors in our past that we simply can’t control.  Luckily, everyone can maximize the resources they have, or learn how to best allocate them for the problem at hand.  Personal counseling can help you with goal-setting, problem-reframing and evaluating the relationships you’ll need to get through the tough times.

[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, April 2014]

    Have you ever met anyone who creates the obscene graffiti on the walls of public restrooms?  Me either.  Yet clearly, SOMEONE is out there, writing scatological poetry and drawing pornographic representations of the female and male anatomy.  It’s just that no one will own up to it, right?

    I think unhelpful medical advice is rather like restroom graffiti.  Many patients make reference to it, have even taken it as their personal gospel.  But I’ve yet to meet a physician who who admits to saying such things to the patients.

    It bears pointing out that the doctor-patient relationship is rich with ritual.  A person of status (doctor), using arcane knowledge and esoteric artifacts (stethoscope), goes through predictable steps that impart role expectations to the patient.  Where this ritual goes awry, however, is when the role it teaches leads to patients feeling powerless to help themselves or improve their own health.  And unfortunately, since these ideas are driven home with physician authority and the power of ritual, they are very difficult to uproot when research calls them into question.

    In my extensive history of working with patients, my ongoing frustration has been in dealing with those people who cling to unhelpful advice.  This is because *my* purpose is to illustrate how changing your behavior, making lifestyle improvements, can help you better your health and wellness.  That is hard to do when when so many patients are already 75% convinced before they ever see me that their situation is out of their control, unhelpable.  Poorly phrased messages from medical providers, however well-intentioned, can be damaging.  I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating, in hopes of inoculating those of you who haven’t yet been stymied by unhelpful advice.

    I cannot count the number of back pain sufferers I’ve evaluated who tell me their physician informed them that if they twist in just the wrong way or lift a ridiculously low weight, they will “end up paralyzed.”  This terrifies patients, and many will fall into deep depression, convinced that any activity in their lives will land them in a wheelchair as a paraplegic.  You’ll find them huddled in bed or on the couch, afraid to move an inch, lest they be thereafter unable to move an inch.

    Now I’ve been trained in social science, not medicine.  So I try not to let my personal anecdotal experience overpower hard data in the formulation of my professional opinions.  But when it comes to medical providers warning people of this type of consequence if they do ordinary activities, I suspect there IS no hard data to push against.

    Even still, forget my experience.  Let’s use YOURS instead!  Ask yourself:  “Have I ever, in all my X years, met a person in a wheelchair who put themselves there by doing ordinary activities around the house?”

    I’m not talking about spinal crush injuries from car wrecks.  And I’m not addressing the horrible changes from progressive neuromuscular diseases.  And we aren’t referring to the person with pain who sits in a wheelchair only because it hurts to move.  Paralysis here means no sensation, no ability to even twitch a muscle…caused by activities akin to walking to the store, changing a light bulb or mopping a floor.  So how many self-paralyzed homebodies have you met?  I’m betting I can guess your answer, huh?

    Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t listen to your doctors.  In all likelihood, they truly want to be as honest and helpful to you as they can.  But you should also be sure that the advice you’re getting comes with some options to help yourself afterward.  If you leave the doctor’s office feeling otherwise, you might need a second opinion.  Or a follow-up referral to a behavioral medicine expert.  No matter how bleak the checkup, we can ALWAYS do something to improve our well-being.  You deserve to be encouraged to learn some of those ways.

[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, March 2014]

    I’ve written about bereavement here before, because it is one of those dislocations of life that can so terribly derail families and individuals in major ways.

    A couple of weeks ago, my wife learned that her uncle had died of cardiovascular disease.  One could call the event “sudden” in that although he had his share of personal stress, he didn’t appear to have any previous evidence of illness prior to the day he died.  He was age 64.  His death was shocking enough to the family for its abrupt onset, but it has been made all the worse by the fact that his father, who is in his 90s, has now outlived him.

    I’ve worked with enough grieving people to know that besides the fear of dementia, and of being a burden on their family, this situation is one of the most dreaded among older parents.  There is a sense that a parent should never outlive a child, that it is “unnatural.”

    How does a counselor even BEGIN to address this kind of pain?
   I’ve found that to be able to give a perspective that can help grievers move forward, a counselor has to have some ability to reframe the “unnatural” feel of loss for them.  One way to do that is to shift their attention from the *length* of their child’s life to the *purpose* of it.  Assume first that each of us is here for some reason–to make our own particular impact on the world and our relations in it–then we can better arrive at the conclusion that a life is complete, not once a certain number of years have passed, but when its purpose is served.  Not everyone requires 70+ years to meet that accomplishment.  Some make a bigger “splash” in their world with a shorter amount of time, and those ripples extend outward to better others in a way other people might require a few decades to do.

    And in fact, if you ask parents who have outlived children, most will concede that their lost child was indeed a larger-than-life personality.  There isn’t a parent alive who doesn’t hope their children will accomplish more, touch a wider range of lives than they have themselves.  All parents hope their children will be better people than they are, the kind of person who will push above and beyond them.  In other words, parents may have deeper lives, requiring more years, but one or more of their children can have *broader* lives, spreading wider, doing more in fewer years.  Even if parents outlive their children, they can still have some sense of pride that their children did more with the years they had.

    I’m sure you’ve heard some version of the adage, “It isn’t the amount of years in your life, but the amount of life in your years that matters.”  This is the psychological machinery that helps people reach a point where they can accept that conclusion.

    As always, I have to give the caveat that no amount of insight or acceptance will make the pain of loss go away.  That isn’t the goal of grief counseling.  Rather, it’s about helping people redirect their pain, use it to honor lost loved ones and make themselves better in the process.  Isn’t that what loved ones want of us?

[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, February 2014]

I’m old enough to remember seeing a breaking medical new story on television in 1982, about a retired dentist named Barney Clark.  What made this 61-year old man a celebrity at the time was that he was one of an early handful of people to be a recipient of a prototype Jarvik-7 artificial heart.  Sadly, Dr. Clark died of complications a few months later.  But the very fact that such an organ as important as the heart could be artificially simulated really grabbed the imaginations of many people during that era.  Would it not be a great feat indeed if people with diseased hearts could have a viable option when a transplant isn’t available?

Well, yes.  But there are other considerations here too.

In his book “The Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” author Jeff Speck comes at the discussion of health from a different angle.  Focusing on the design of cities for improved health and wellness, he cites situations of “green living,” in which well-meaning people try to reduce their carbon footprint and stay healthy by investing in technology.  Think of those “hybrid” vehicles we see on the road now, or the CFL bulbs we use instead of incandescents.  Speck refers to these types of decisions as a “gizmo green” philosophy.  Gizmo green technological solutions allow us to feel like we’re being proactive for our health, but really, they let us keep doing what we’ve always done, just with different gadgets.  Ultimately, Speck makes the observation that we can’t buy our way out of responsibility for our well-being.  For example, there is evidence that more fuel efficient cars lead to increased driving, with corresponding elevations of health-damaging pollution.  For the first time in history, the current generation of young people is expected to have a shorter average lifespan than their parents.  Clearly, if we want to live healthier, happier lives, we need to change our behavior, not buy more sophisticated toys so we don’t have to change our behavior.

Bringing this back to the artificial heart, then, it seems likely that the future of cardiac health for most of us is less about shunting resources into building a better replacement for a diseased blood pump, and more about what we as individuals can do daily to avoid heart disease in the first place.  Even in this medical domain, issues of goal-setting–with changes in behavior–are tasks where counselors can have some sway.

One major change I’ve made for myself in the past couple of years is that I stand up more.  Some studies suggest that by standing for two hours of a workday, we can significantly reduce the risks of heart disease.  Interestingly, these gains are most salient for women, though of course, anyone can benefit from moving around instead of sitting all the time.  By stacking up a few boxes or even an ironing board, you can easily and cheaply (an ironing board costs less than $30) make a “standing work station,” which will free your body from chair inertia.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve found that standing elevates my mood, clears my thinking and as a bonus, it gets rid of that painful muscle spasm in my low back.  This is just one way changing behavior has the potential to help with your present health, and possibly your health in the years to come.

[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, December 2013]

It’s a basic axiom in psychology that the way we think about ourselves determines a great deal about how we conduct ourselves.  And more importantly, how we feel about ourselves, both as individuals and a society.

In our modern world, the machine model has triumphed over our thinking about ourselves.  I can remember even in grade school, my classroom health textbooks had titles such as “the body machine,” and Saturday morning jingles like School House Rock stated, “You’re a machine, I’m a machine.”  The model is so popular because it offers up quick ways to measure health and treat illness.  Each body organ is a mini-machine, doing its specialized work, as part of a greater machine.  Food is our “fuel,” and exercise is considered a way to make the machine more “efficient.”  Doctors can even remove defective “parts” and replace them with transplanted tissue or even literally machine parts of metal and plastic.

There’s no surprise then that the machine model of the mind wasn’t far behind.  Sigmund Freud’s theory cast the mind as basically a steam engine.  Even today, research is out to find which piece of brain machinery controls this or that behavior.

As useful as it can be, though, the machine model can also take us to some pretty uncomfortable places.  For example, when a machine starts to break down, what do we do with it?  Why, we throw it away, of course, and get a new one.  A shinier one.  Newer is always better.  So how does this shape our ideas about the elderly?  Or about experienced employees in the workplace?  And because all machines exist to do work, the most important question: Now that we’ve made the human machine more efficient, what is its purpose?

What doesn’t get discussed much are the alternatives to the machine model.  In the book “Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct” (Sarbin, 1986), various authors propose a “story” model for a human being.  Now the word “story” gets a bad rap.  At best, it’s associated with fiction, entertainment.  In my grandparents’ time, saying a person “tells stories” was a euphemism for conveying that they told lies.

A  more forgiving definition for a story is “a set of events that happen over time.”  Each one of us has a story, and each part of our physical, mental and social lives also has a story.  We’re all walking, talking anthologies.  In a story, food ceases to be mere fuel, and becomes a way of sharing stories with others, even a story itself (“This meal was so good, how did you do it?”).  Exercise stops being about efficiency, and becomes a struggle against the odds, a means of heroism and self-improvement.

Unlike a machine, which has to be tasked with a future purpose, a story exists in the telling, in the present.  It is, that it is.  What’s more, stories are timeless.  Once a story exists, it is forever; no one can unmake what has already happened.  Each time we tell our story, we bring it to life all over again, we renew it.  Unlike machines, which have to be newer to be valued, stories can have some age on them.  Aren’t “the classics” older stories that have stood the test of time?  And what do we recall best about the elderly but the stories with which they gift us?

I’m rather drawn to the kinds of options that existing as a story can offer me.  So what is your story?

[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, January 2014]

Buses and obscure uncles come up a great deal among those people who like to argue against efforts to live a healthy lifestyle.  You know the folks I’m talking about, I’m sure.  They’re the ones who see you eating baked instead of fried chicken, and who then try to convince you that you shouldn’t deprive yourself of the greasy goodness, because after all, no matter how healthy you try to be (say it with me now), “You could always get hit by a bus tomorrow.”  Alternatively, you may get the comparison to Uncle So-and-So, “Who smoked and drank his entire life, and lived to be a hundred!”

I find these comments usually come from individuals who have a rather passive view of health and healthiness.  Their personality style is that of the external locus of control, a topic I’ve written about before.  Rather than assume responsibility for their state of health, they find it easier to cite the most extreme statistical outliers to support their beliefs (like that mythical uncle).  When their own health doesn’t fit with this passive view, they attribute everything they suffer to genetics or something in their environment.  I’ve evaluated many people who will hack and cough all through the session, talking at length about their family history of asthma or the chemicals their irresponsible employer used around them, all the while ignoring that they’ve been a two-pack-per-day smoker for the past quarter century.

There are two mistaken beliefs built into this worldview:

Mistake #1.  Indulgence equals happiness.  This is the belief that a state of happiness can only be gained by eating whatever one wants, and seeking comfort (sic: indolence) at every opportunity.  The idea of gobbling a hot fudge sunday while resting in a hammock, or sipping margaritas on the beach is the gold standard of relaxation for a great number of people.

The reality is that we tend to habituate to constant indulgence.  People who eat “naughty” foods more often, for example, tend to find such foods lose their zest, become boring.  Saving them for special occasions tends to keep them more savory.  Further, there is a history in the West and East of ascetics, monks who deny themselves creature comforts most of us take for granted.  These individuals report no less quality of life.  In fact, they are often more energetic and productive than our own population, in which a third of us are overweight and tired all the time.  Indolence too, doesn’t seem to fit with the research.  Being inert on the beach may sound nice, but more people report a good experience when they go hiking on their vacation, or tour a museum.  Unstructured time tends to be boring and a little depressing.

Mistake #2.  Lifespan is the goal of health practices.  If you had the choice, would you rather live in good health for sixty years, and then die suddenly, or make it to age 80, but feel miserable and useless for 40 years of it?  This question brings out the difference between the LIFEspan and the HEALTHspan.

Many Americans have the mistaken view that the goal of healthy lifestyle choices (self-deprivation as they would see it), is to have more years in their life.  So it’s easy to find contrary evidence of that person who “exercised every day, and then got hit by a bus.”  But the *true* goal of healthy choices isn’t a longer life, but a better one.  To a proactive, health-conscious person, a shorter, healthier existence is better than a longer, sicker one.  To feel good and productive for as much of one’s life as possible.

You notice no one ever tells you what Uncle So-and-So looked like for most of his life, and they don’t describe his daily activities?  Maybe he won the genetic lottery and could be that one in 10,000 who could get away with abusing his body for a century.  More likely, he looked like a wheezing, upright, shambling cadaver, and probably felt about the same.  If asked, would he recommend his lifestyle to anyone else?

Would YOU?

[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, November 2013]

    Like everybody, I don’t like dealing with traffic.  In fact, a huge chunk of my lifestyle revolves around finding ways to minimize automobile travel, walking when I can.  I think that when I started driving on my own, I learned my first hard lessons about the world, about people’s willingness to follow rules.  And I realized how easy it was to die for the silliest reasons.

    But in our post-recession economy, travel is unavoidable.  Our jobs and lifestyles require us to periodically take a deep breath and then submit ourselves to the blur of variables we don’t control, many of which can be frustrating at best, and lethal at worst.  Ergo, I’ll often try to remind myself of a few important lessons for reducing the stress of dealing with traffic:

1.  You never truly get anywhere faster.  Especially when driving in cities.  You might catch an extra green light or maybe you’ll squeak through one on yellow.  But almost invariably, you’ll either get caught at the next one, or you’ll end up behind someone who will hold you up about as much time as you saved before.  It all evens out.  We’ve had encounters with that one driver who insists on zipping between lanes, cutting off others and risking a collision for that extra car length of progress.  Watch next time, and you’ll notice how usually, you’ll roll up on them stopped at the same red light as you.  Maybe they’ll sometimes push their way a half mile ahead of you, but that brings us to our next lesson…

2.  Every minute is won by increased suffering.  The faster you try to drive, the slower and more bumbling is the rest of the traffic around you.  You get held back more often.  If speed, rather than timely arrival, is your goal, then you’re destined to be frustrated when you can’t go as fast as you want.  Even if you manage to shave off fifteen minutes on a lengthy trip, you’ll be more agitated by the time you get where you’re going.  Settling into the legal speed limit and letting go of the need for speed will help you with the next lesson, the ability to…

3.  Use the time instead of trying to save it.  We’re all in a hurry, and it seems so often like there aren’t enough hours in the day.  But investing in your mental health by leaving ten minutes earlier can be the difference between a decent trip, and hair-tearing frustration.  With a bit of cushion, you can shift your attention to plans upon arrival, rather than the next opportunity for a lane change.  Or, as I personally like to do, you can engage in learning opportunities with audio lectures or recorded books.  Learning or imagining while driving is made easier with the next lesson, which is to…

4.  Minimize Decision-Making.  When we have to react to the highway, it necessitates several exchanges between eyes, spinal cord, brain and muscles.  The human brain is able to send a neural impulse at about two feet per second.  By that time, a 65-mph vehicle has already covered at least 88 feet; enough distance to cause any number of problems for us.  To save your sanity, minimize changes in your driving circumstances as much as possible.  If you drive the same route to work every day, pick the lane you’ll need on arrival several miles out, and stick with it.  Don’t fall prey to the urge to jump lanes each time the traffic in front of you slows down.  The more decisions, the more you’ll have to react to other fast-moving bodies, at a rate that exceeds the human nervous system.

    Ultimately, don’t rely on luck to keep your peace of mind!  Take control of it yourself.  Stay put, enjoy your thoughts and play a few more seconds of your favorite tune.  You’ll feel better, I assure you.

[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, October 2013]

    I consider myself fortunate that I developed a love of recreational reading at a young age.  From comic books to the Hardy Boys, Danny Dunn and even a few of the classics, my life has been steeped in a literate tradition, worlds of imagination between the pages of those low-tech storytellers, books.  Reading has a long history of research behind it, showing that it can boost IQ, lengthen attention span, increase vocabulary and make us better communicators.  Can’t you tell just by talking to someone whether or not they’re a reader?

    Even before I knew about all of these cognitive benefits, though, I always harbored sympathy for those people who never found the love for literacy.  It seems like thousands of ideas, stories and heroic themes are just passing them by.  I’ve had conversations with them before, and they usually have reasons for why they prefer to do anything else besides lose themselves in a book.  Some say that they have to “read all day” in their jobs, and the last activity that draws them in their spare time is more of the same.  But, that can’t be the whole story, because voracious readers also often have to read on the job; yet they still find reading a rewarding use of their time afterward.  In the words of a past college peer of mine, “a reader is a reader is a reader.”  We’re going to read for pleasure, no matter the other word requirements in our lives.

    What’s even harder for me to grasp than the idea of not loving to read, is that non-readers actually pity me!  Yes, I’ve had a few very intelligent non-readers observe that life has too much for them to do to be bothered “staring at words on a page all the time.”  They seem to have confused the technology requirements of reading–using the senses to take in words–with what reading is really all about. 

      I’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to dealing with people, enough to know that adult readers almost never win converts from among adult non-readers.  You either develop the love for it at a young age, or you probably never will.  Still, as a professional who focuses on the inner world, I feel the need to try to illustrate what reading entails, absent the idea that it’s just staring at words for people who would rather be doing something else.

    At its heart, reading is about building a relationship.  Although usually considered a solitary activity, reading requires the reader to connect to another person; after all, stories and ideas don’t descend out of the sky.  They are assembled and written down by other people.  More, reading is a negotiation.  The writer uses language to explain something, and the reader chooses how to act on that explanation.  Words on a page aren’t just words; they are a recipe, a set of directions from the writer, suggestions to the reader for how to use their own imagination.  Like a muscle doing different exercises, the imagination gets better and more efficient the more one uses a variety of writers and styles to operate their mental machinery.  You see, what non-readers don’t grasp is that reading isn’t a passive process at all.  A reader is expending large amounts of energy and effort to create something inside themselves.  Ask any doctor which organ in the body consumes the most energy, and they’ll tell you it’s the brain.  A reader sitting quietly with an intense look of concentration on their face might be the hardest-working person you observe in a day!

    I won’t try to convert the non-readers out there.  But I love the mental worlds I’ve built in my lifetime, and hope you have opportunity to experience the same!  Such rewards are as close as your local library.

[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, September 2013]

As a counselor, I have been asked multiple times, “Do dreams really mean anything?”  My response is one of psychology’s most tattered, die-hard responses: It depends.

Societies around the world have long historical and cultural associations about dream content.  Some consider dreams to be visitations by spirits, messages from God, psychic predictions of the future, evidence of a past life and the like.  For people looking for confirmation of these types of theories about dreams and dreaming, I can only say that psychology offers no ready answers.  They must seek them in metaphysics, meditation or religion.  The psychological discipline today limits itself to what can be reliably observed and consistently replicated.  Dreams, yes.  Spiritual visitations?  Alas, no.

Sigmund Freud was one of the early thinkers who tried to make ideas about dreams “more scientific,” by fitting them into his theories about an “unconscious mind” and calling them “symbolic content.”  Ultimately, Freud’s symbols proved to be too rigid to be useful, and are considered by mainstream psychology today as antiquated; at least in their original form.

Personally, I think the only way we can speak about dreams is to ask a different question:  “Can dreams be useful?”  And there is evidence that whether dreams have a “real meaning” or are instead just random brain cells shooting off in the skull, people can and have harnessed their dreams for some meaningful purpose in their waking life.  Several song writers have admitted to being inspired by dream content, including Paul McCartney and Billy Joel.  Scientists too can thank their dreaming experiences for influencing their work.  Dmitry Mendeleyev awakened from a particular dream with the form for the periodic table of elements that chemists still use today, while Paul Horowitz had the same experience before finding the successful design for the laser telescope controls.  In the political arena, Mahatma Gandhi drew from a dream his passion for nonviolenet protest against the British in India.

My own life has been far less distinguished, with or without visitations to Dreamland.  But I too have managed to give my dreams purpose, and to therefore, make them “mean” something.  In 2004, for example, I had a dream about a college friend I hadn’t seen in at least a year.  The next day, I decided to give her a call, because the memory was still fresh.  She told me later that my call had come at a time she was making important decisions about her career, and because we had talked, she eventually successfully found a new job!  In a sense, my dream “meant” a new career path for her.

So my advice is to find creative ways to use your dreams.  Of course, 95% of dreams are forgotten, except for the ones that happen in the time right before we wake up.  To preserve them, keep pad and paper next to your bed.  Write some of them down, even if all you get are a few sentences of barely legible scribble.  Then think about them throughout your day.  Even the most hard-core science-minded type will admit that the sleeping brain is chemically different than the waking one.  No matter how weird the stories it generates, or how old the content, you might be surprised at how dreams can make you think in directions different than what you normally would.