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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My One Hundredth Blog Post

Today, I publish my 100th blog post.

Why do I do it?  Well, for one thing it gives me great satisfaction.  Knowledge is not to be kept or hoarded.  Moreover, I enjoy helping my patients solve their problems.  I know that some people for one reason or another can't make it into therapy.  I would hope both to encourage people and to explain some concepts regarding psychology along the way.  I also enjoy the feeling of being connected to people.

Commercial publishing is not really an option.  I've gone that route (mostly dry academic books on depression), and those types of books don't get distributed out to people very well.  There might be some money to be made on popular books.  But the money is not important.  What really brings me satisfaction is knowing that people around the world can freely access this information.

Ideas don't belong to any one person.  I don't know where they come from.  Sometimes I think that I have a new idea, but I suspect that what really happens most of the time is that my mind takes information which I have encountered and puts a slightly different twist on it.  They are my ideas, and yet they are not.  And if I don't share them, someone else will.  So why not share them for free?  And it seems like the more I share my ideas, the more it stimulates me to think.

Each of us has something to contribute.  If we give it away, the world is a better place for it.  Now I don't blame people for making money off of blogs or books.  I made a few dollars off of my academic books.  But there is also a time to give things away.

I like the idea of Teilhard de Chardin about the noosphere.  He was a Catholic theologian banned from publishing by the Vatican.  (It always makes something more tantalizing somehow when it has been banned).  He talked about the noosphere [(Greek word for mind=nous)+sphere] (sorry, I don't know how to pronounce it).  Of all the spheres surrounding the Earth (atmosphere, biosphere), he theorized that this one was composed of thoughts.  Here is a link, summarized in Wikipedia:  and .  I like the idea of adding my own thoughts to the noosphere.

So, I hope there is something useful here for you.  I would encourage you to read a little about Teilhard de Chardin, a very interesting thinker.  And hopefully, you can add your own contribution to the noosphere in one way or another, too.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


I always like to find a good, new book which summarizes recent research.  I was very impressed with the book Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.  There is so much useful information in this book that there is no way to cover it in this blog.  However, there are two major thrusts of the book which I would like to focus on: ego depletion over short periods of time and building willpower over long periods of time.

As the authors point out, the whole concept of willpower was considered quaint or even nonsensical in most of 20th century psychology.  When I went to graduate school, there was absolutely nothing about it in my courses.

The book makes many points, but there are two major ones.  First, there is evidence that in the short run, our willpower (or self-restraint, or whatever you want to call it) can become depleted.  The source of the temporary depletion appears to be remarkably simple--less available glucose to the frontal lobes.  And one momentary cure can sometimes be as simple as--sugar.  Yes, sugar, that "evil" substance which has been accused of so many offenses, from hyperactivity to diabetes.  I am not advocating a diet of sugar, either for ourselves or for our children.  But the authors point out that in a laboratory situation, a quick hit of glucose seems to reverse the effect of willpower depletion.  Ideally, we will all have appropriate diets involving protein, complex carbohydrates, and so on, which provide the body the energy it needs on an ongoing basis.  But in a pinch, there is nothing wrong with a Hershey's Kiss.  A small amount of sugar can assist the frontal lobes in their work of exercising willpower and restraint. 
Now you may be asking: With all of the sugar being consumed in our society, why isn't there more self-restraint?  The answer is that the sugar "hit" only works when there is a temporary state of ego depletion.  The person has to have been actively using willpower over, say, a 15-30 minute period of time or more, for depletion effects to start to show up.  The availability of glucose is a "necessary but not sufficient" condition for willpower to occur.  This leads to the second major point of the book, and I think, the more important point:  willpower can be trained.  When we practice any type of willpower on an ongoing basis, it tends to have a generalized effect, heightening willpower in other areas.

Willpower doesn't just emerge from the brain like a flower growing from the ground.  While I do suspect that some of it may be genetic, I also think that much of our willpower comes from social training.  And I would give our society an "F" on that point.  (With the possible exception of the Asian community.)

I do believe that there are other important virtues for our society to train in children besides willpower.  I would vote for creativity and love as being two of the most important.  But willpower (and a related concept of "grit") is right up there with them for me.  Learning how to do the hard thing is so very important in growing up and being a happy, productive member of society.

The concept of willpower being important had not only disappeared from psychology at one point, I think that it has begun to disappear in the thinking of our younger generations.  I once had an adolescent patient tell me that she saw no reason for having to do multiple math problems for homework when she already understood the concept.  I did not have a good comeback for her at the time.  I do now. 

First, here is what I would have said then if I had thought it over then.  When we practice something over and over, we overlearn it.  By overlearning, we are less likely to forget it, and we are more able to remember it, even when we are stressed.  Now, here is what I would tell her now.  It's not just about math.  Yes, the overlearning of math procedures is important.  But there is really more at stake.  When we learn how to do the hard thing in something specific, we are learning how to do the hard thing in general.  And that is all too often what life requires of us.  I don't always like to do the hard thing, but sometimes I do it anyway.  We need to teach our children to do the hard thing because they will be faced with it over and over again in life. 

Ancient Spartans knew how to teach their children how to do the hard thing.  There were many things wrong with Spartan society;  I could list several off the top of my head.  But when it came to fighting off the Persians at Thermopylae, it was the Spartans that the other Greek city states turned to.  Their soldiers had learned a steely will power.  But are we teaching determination and restraint to our children?  Are we helping them to learn it while they are young, so they will not try to escape the challenges of life when they are grown?

Baumeister's research suggests that even for those of us adults who may be lacking in it to some degree, it is not too late.  No, I am not suggesting eating sugar.  Read the book.  I think you will find it very interesting.