Category Archives: pragmatics

"Can a leopard change its spots?"


Rhetorical questions get right up my nose. [Just for fun, notice how many RQs I sneak into this post, and how annoying they are.] This famous RQ is from the Old Testament prophet Jeramiah [13:23], who prefaces his animal metaphor with what these days would be called a racial slur: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” In both cases, one might be moved to reply, “Why would he even want to [change]?” [Jeramiah’s answer would be, to avoid the destruction of Solomon’s temple, silly! Go read his whole sarcastic, “Now you’ve gone and done it, and you’re gonna get it!” rant for yourself, if this isn’t ringing any distant bells from your Judeo-Christian-Islamic upbringing.]

Ever since I was assigned my first patient in 1971, the leopard-spot-changing question has dogged me. [Remember this variation on the theme of an old joke? Q:”How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb?” A:”Just one; but the lightbulb has to really want to change.”] Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels a little bit defensive about the efficacy of The Talking Cure. In this month’s issue of The California Psychologist, there’s an article with the subheading, “Psychotherapy is Effective!” Here’s what various cited outcome studies have “shown” it can do: “provide symptom relief and personality change, prevent future symptomatic episodes, enhance quality of life, promote adaptive functioning in work/school and relationships, [and/or] increase the likelihood of making healthy and satisfying life choices.” Not to mention buying a little time, when your colleagues, constituents & the media are baying for your blood. Nar’mean?

How do you suppose most of these studies determine whether the desired outcome has been achieved? Why, by self-report questionnaires, mostly. “After 10 sessions, I can definitely see my spots fading!” Got any methodological problems with that? Remember the principle of Cognitive Dissonance? [The more Therbligs/money/effort you invest in achieving a goal, the more likely you are to believe that you achieved it.] That’s why, explained our grad school profs, “no-cost” psychotherapy hardly ever “works.” “Charge ’em at least fifty cents, if you want ’em to change,” they advised. [The APA Ethics Committee is constantly chasing its tail, as to whether barter is a therapeutic form payment. “Taking it out in trade” (as the lewd British euphemism has it), is definitely not, and is punishable by loss of license to practice.]

But, even if a paying leopard really wants to change its spots, can it? How much of brain function is “hard-wired” [as neuro-scientists used to like to say], and how much is “plastic” [as they like to say, these days]? Turns out, the more the patient and the therapist believe in the plasticity of brain function, “the more positive change is observed.” Even if they insist on calling it “rewiring.”

These days, I regard “a good therapeutic outcome” as “changing a leopard into a snow leopard.”

And I hate RQs because they are at best intrusive [a big waste of time, since they promise an answer which they don’t deliver], and at worst humiliating [since, like Jeramiah, they imply, “Schmuck, you should know this already!”].

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Filed under gets right up my nose, murky research, pragmatics, therbligs

"I Believe I Can Fly"


Are you familiar with R.Kelly’s 1993 Grammy-winning R&B song? If you flew Northwest in the 90s, you heard it as part of their pre-flight informational video, apparently designed to spare the cabin crew the Therbligs it takes to perform the safety spiel, which [up until last week] bored everyone but rookie passengers. On several flights I was on, the song caused nervous laughter and wisecracks: “Oh they believe they can fly? How strangely not reassuring!”

My fellow travelers were engaging in Poetic speech, as was a youth [at the foster care agency in Detroit where I consulted], in response to a certain card on Murray’s Thematic Apperception Test. The decidedly literal-minded and unhip lady who had administered his psychological test battery wrote in her report, “The subject began to sing a song, to the effect that he believed he could fly.” She thought he was delusional. I [her supervisor] thought he was quick-witted, creative and funny. After a brief lecture on psycholinguistics (and particularly, Pragmatics), my opinion prevailed.

Funny old phrase, though, innit? TAT creator Murray, himself, spoke of the “Icarus Complex,” defined in The Dictionary of Psychology [ed. Ray Corsini, 2002] as “a desire to be important and gain fame and fortune, but paired with a tendency to not succeed, in part because of refusing to try or giving up too quickly.” Okay, Test Lady and Murray, which would you have us do? Take a leap of faith into the wild blue yonder, and hope our feathers don’t melt in the sun’s heat, or shut up and obey the laws of gravity?

My father had at least two things in common with singer/songwriter Robert Kelly. He was born on the South Side of Chicago, and he believed he could fly. For high school credit, he and some classmates got to go over to nearby Midway Airport and learn to repair and fly the Sopwith Camel of a WWI flying Ace. Rosie [known more prosaically as Red in his pre-Naval Academy days] was the most promising pupil; and the Ace hatched a plan for him to become the youngest American to fly solo over an ocean. Therefore, on Easter Break of 1936 [after the 16-year-old had earned his pilot’s license] the two of them flew the biplane down [in fuel-limited hops] to Florida, and waited for good enough weather for a flight to Cuba. Time ran out before the skies cleared; and they despondently “puddle jumped” their way back to Midway, not having succeeded in their quest. [As NASA has learned to its cost, you can control alot of things, but not Florida weather.]

“Nevermind,” thought he, “I’ll go to the Naval Academy and become a Marine Aviator.” But on Service Selection night in December of 1941, the flight school quota for the top 10th of the Class had already been filled by the time his number came up; and he was consigned to the “Black Shoe Navy” [as Surface Warfare was called, then and now]. So, on his 61st birthday [geddit?], he renewed his private pilot’s license, bought a Cessna, and once more took to the skies.

The next post will consider the case of a private pilot with 20 years’ experience, who suddenly experienced an in-flight Panic Attack, and no longer “believed he could fly.”

This is a picture of Lili (who turns 7 next week), taken several years ago, when she joyfully “flew” over obstacles with the greatest of ease. Now, she has to be asked to do so; and sometimes she “dogs it” by leaping beside [not over] the barrel. C’mon, Lili! Even in dog years, you’re not 61 yet.

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Filed under locus of control, magical thinking, pragmatics, therbligs

The Holy Ground


True, full-time Hibernians [not youse who are bein’ Irish just for today, to honor St. Padraig] will know that the so-called “Holy Ground” of the old song [also referenced in a second song on Mary Black’s album of de same name] is not a religious place at all [like, God-save-us-all, East Jerusalem, or Mecca], but the red-light district in the port town of Cobh, in County Cork, from whence set sail many of our immigrant forebears, from the land of green fields and not enough food, to the land of green beer and food galore.

It is, thus, an ironic [Poetic] figure of speech, capturing both halves of the ambivalence which the Irish diaspora feel for their country of origin. For centuries, Eire was [as Dr. Samuel Johnson said of Scotland], “a grand place to be from.” In Mary Black’s song, “The Loving Time,” [the first line of which is, “Reads like a fairytale, cuz that’s what it was.”] it connotes the power of sentimental, romantic love to [temporarily] blind a couple to their [possibly irreconcilable] differences: “…and the Holy Ground took care of everything.” Spoiler alert. The last verse of this bravely wolf-acknowledging song begins, “It didn’t come true in the end. They went their separate ways.” Rather like Old Mother Ireland and Her then desperately hungry, later desperately nostalgic, children.

Suggested reading: Tom Hayden’s [yes, that Tom Hayden] historical and autobiographical book, Irish On the Inside.

So, here’s the point of this post. Any piece of real estate which holds powerful intimations [both sweet and bitter] of actual or legendary happenings, can become “the holy ground” for an individual, a couple, a family, or a tribe. In the Fall of 1957 my father drove through Gate 3 of his alma mater, the Naval Academy, and parked [illegally] in front of the Chapel for long enough to run into the Admin building and report for duty. My usually Stoic mother burst into tears. Was she afraid the Jimmy Legs [the Yard police] were going to ticket our car? Or was she overcome by the sight of the Chapel, where she & Rosie were married in a tiny, wartime service? Turns out the Chapel was a mere synecdoche for the whole USNA mystique, which, to one degree or another, our whole family [along with many others] have come to regard as “the holy ground.” In 1958 my mother dramatically fell ill with MS while walking on the Academy grounds; yet I found myself inexorably drawn back to live and work there, in 1976 and in 2000. And it’s not because of all the rollicking fun to be had there [especially, this last time round]. It’s because of the memories of the good and bad times I had there with The Now Departed [my parents], whose presence [I believed] would feel more palpable there, than anywhere else on earth.

It was, do you see, a Transitional Object [like a Teddy bear, or Alfred the dog, or Ciotogach the cat], that helps one to feel closer to “the ones that we love true,” to paraphrase the song.

How randomly can a place become “the holy ground”! Not for its intrinsic beauty, or bounty, or balmy weather, or enlightened folkways; but because it is the repository of memories, of Us interacting with [ambivalently] loved Others. When you’re in it [as I learned early, in my peripatetic Navy childhood] it’s often hard to believe that you’re going to look back on a place with nostalgia. I spent my first two months in England [now, the holiest of my “holy grounds”] squinting at ViewMaster reels of the Naval Academy and weeping for what was lost. Who could have imagined that, one day, I would be using Google Maps to take virtual rambles round my beloved English “home place” [as the Irish say] of Stoke D’Abernon, where Ying Tong the cat was regarded with such ambivalence [mostly, negative] by all the neighbors.

Speaking of rambles, I am wise enough to know that the South River woods [in which Lili once again warned me of a suddenly-falling-but-this-time-without-audible-warning, 30-foot tree trunk, not 20 yards ahead of us, on today’s walk] will be added to my list of “holy grounds” [if I am not struck down by falling lumber first].

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Filed under ambivalence, pragmatics, semiotics, transitional objects

What are you laughing at?


Tell you what Arthur Koestler thought. In 1964 he wrote a tome on the subject, The Act of Creation, the burden of whose 751 pages, is that all humor, scientific discoveries, and works of art occur when two worlds collide. He put it rather more ponderously, “when two matrices bisociate.” By this he meant, when two frames of reference [each with its own rules of logic] are unexpectedly juxtaposed. Abstract and boring enough for ya, so far?

Consider this visual joke: Penny the Cucamonga cat is “wearing” a [photo-shopped] party hat, looking anything-but-in-a-party-mood, being held by my daughter [most of whose festive facial expression I have discreetly cropped away, to preserve her privacy]. Koestler would say that there are at least two matrices bisociating here. Penny, a cat, is impersonating a human “party animal,” which is also a pun; and the obvious photo-shopping of the party hat is my daughter’s mockery of the shoddy paparazzi “photo-journalism” ubiquitous in LA, where this picture was taken. Not unlike those ancient philosophers, Koestler believed that in all humor there is an element of defensive-aggression, against the butt of the joke. In this case, the joke is metaphorically on Penny [since we know how much pets detest wearing silly human costumes for gag photos]; but it’s actually on the paparazzi. Geddit?

Let’s go back to my fave joke, introduced in the “Funny Bone” post. “Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, ‘Why the long face?'” One matrix is the well-worn, formulaic [mostly New York-based] genre of “guy-walks-into-a-bar-bartender-says-why-the-long-face?” joke. This collides with a more obscure joke tradition [mostly in Ireland & the UK], of placing horses in unusual settings. Back in the day, there was a series of print ads for whiskey, using the slogan, “You can take a White Horse anywhere.” Near the beginning of the cult Irish flick, Into the West, a [white] horse is taken by lift up to the top floor of a council housing flat in Dublin, and the human passengers on the lift don’t bat an eye. [A nod to the whiskey slogan.] That gets the horse into the bar, in my fave joke. The second matrix is a pun: a play on the words, “long face.”

But where’s the element of defensive-aggression in this oh-so-sophisticated joke? The butt of the joke is the genre of joke, itself. It is what Jon Stewart would call a meta-joke. It is a joke about a type of joke. Probably, it resonates most with those of us who have tried to “be funny,” for a living [or for a grade in acting school].

Those of you who remember Jakobsen’s six Speech Functions will be raising your hands and “chirping” [@ 50 KHz], “Oooh! Oooh! This is Poetic Speech we’re talking about! Designed to Tell the Ugly Truth without Suffering the Ugly Consequences.” That is exactly what we are talking about. The teller of the joke [little David] gets to poke fun at big, bad Goliath; and the laughers at the joke get to expend their adrenaline in a non-combative manner. If they laugh until they cry, they even get to purge themselves of some cortisol. Goliath is mocked, but everybody survives. That’s what Koestler thought; and his most enduring book is Darkness at Noon, a repudiation of the “Goliath” of Communism, with whom he had previously cast his lot in the 1930s.

Now, back to Jaak’s laughing rats and tickling. [I’ll leave the cocaine commentary to the Wallabies among you.] Koestler believed that what rats [and little children] find laughable about tickling is that it is a mock attack. It’s funny because they know they are not really in danger of pain & suffering. The tickler is only impersonating an attacker. If actual pain results, or even the fear of pain, it’s no laughing matter. In fact, Jaak found, if even one cat hair [a signifier of threat from a predator] is in the room where a rat is being tickled, the rat will not “chirp” [@ 50 KHz]; it will bum [@ 22 KHz].

The rough-and-tumble play of all baby mammals produces “chirps” of glee. In developmental psychology, this epitomizes the concept, “This is only pretend.” Sigmund’s daughter, Anna Freud [she of the German Shepherd “Wolf”], called this Regression in the Service of the Ego one of the most important defenses older humans can use, as a respite from the real [not mock] threats in their lives. When we laugh at Jon Stewart poking fun at Kim Jong Il, we are pretending that the threat that little martinet poses to the world is “only pretend.” For that little moment, we are regressing to a childlike belief that Kim is just a joke [and giving our overtaxed limbic system a rest].

So, go ahead and laugh it up, folks. Feels great, doesn’t it?

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Filed under comic relief, limbic system, pragmatics, semiotics

Through a Glass, Darkly


This Biblical allusion dates from a time when glass was so cloudy that it obscured, rather than clarified, an image seen through it. It is a good metaphor for the value of the Metalingual speech function [as in, “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”]. In the “Dog Eat Dog” post, I presumed to “know” what the guy in the elevator really was talking about [which I called his “subtext,” like the English translation at the bottom of an Ingmar Bergmann film]. It was just my guess, based on his “semiotics” [words, voice inflection, facial expressions and body language]. Figuring out what the other guy is actually trying to say is not rocket science–in fact some rocket scientists can’t do it very well at all. The Austrian whose name is now associated with the “syndrome” of the interpersonally challenged [Asperger], called it “Severe Engineer’s Brain.”

Dogs [also cats, children, and “clairvoyants”] are naturals at discerning the other guy’s subtext. The less fluent you are in the speaker’s language, the more you pick up on other clues about the message. As a born quidnunc [literally, Latin for “What now?”]–known in other cultures as a Busybody, Nosey Parker, or yente–I have always loved to listen in on fellow travelers’ conversations on public transport, as if trying to figure out the backstory of a movie already in progress, with extra points for “foreign language films.” It has helped in my work with Paranoid Schizophrenics, who [dedicated readers will recall] use lots of Poetic speech, in order to make themselves obscure.

The way you “know” you have successfully “cracked the code” of a schizophrenic’s obscure utterance, is to humbly [I try to channel Capt. Columbo, “Jeez, I’m just guessing here, but…”] offer a possible “translation” of their cryptic remark. If you’re wrong, they smile enigmatically; but if you’re right, stand by for mayhem. [I learned the hard way, to be closer to the door than my interlocutor, when “going for the whole phrase, Monty (or was it Vanna?).”] There’s nothing a schizophrenic likes less than a clairvoyant, lemme tell ya. I put “know” in quotation marks, because no earthly soul can know for sure what another one really means–sometimes, not even the speaker.

So, how does it work with less obscure speakers, in everyday life? One option, which I took with the guy in the elevator, was to assume I caught what he was pitching, and respond to his [presumed] subtext, by replying [in my subtext], “Exercise is a non-zero-sum game, pally. Lighten up.” If I didn’t want to guess at his meaning, I could deploy my favorite Michigan response: “What’s yer point?” [Unfortunately, the subtext of that remark is almost always hostile, so it’s not great for elevator conversations.]

Whatever you would have said [including nowt], it is a skill worth practicing, to become a quick subtext reader and “writer.” As we all know by now, I tend to favor the comic retort; but other options work just as well. To be continued in the next post…

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Filed under pragmatics, secret code, semiotics

"Hearthrug!"


Jus’ like ol’ Rhymin’ Simon says, “Detroit, Detroit got a hell of a hockey team.” In honor of whom, today’s post will use a sports metaphor. Our dog trainer left two commands to the discretion of the dog owner. The first, today’s topic, was to be in English [not Japanese], so that visitors to one’s home could easily use it [without consulting the cue card of Japanese commands we hand all who enter here]. We were to designate an area in the home as the Penalty Box, to which the dog would be sent, briefly, for incidents of “unnecessary roughness” [to borrow a sports term]. No G-water would be served there, however. In our household, typical infractions include: too vigorous herding of our 3 cats, too emphatic barking at intruding neighborhood dogs on our property, and–most egregiously–challenging guests who have been designated by the Management as “Welcome.” A second guest-challenge results in being tethered, by a longish leash, to the hearthrug area, and commanded to “Fuse” [pronounced Foo-say, lie down]; and a third challenge results in being sent off to the “locker room” [her downstairs dogroom, which is larger and more comfortably furnished than either of my kids’ college dorm rooms].

The hockey metaphor is apt, because no one in this household is kidding themselves that Lili subscribes to a policy of absolute non-violence. There is presumed in hockey to be a certain degree of “necessary roughness” [euphemized as “checking”] that is part of the game. I grew up hearing droll Midshipmen at Dahlgren Hall hockey matches chant, “Impede him! Impede him! Make him relinquish the puck!” Likewise, another old chestnut from Coronation Street is “Why keep a dog and bark, yourself?” The English telly dog trainer, Victoria Stillwell, advises that when one’s dog first barks to announce the approach to one’s home of a non-resident, one should say “Thank you!” [in our case, “Arigato!”], since that is what dogs were bred to do. Only if the dog carries on barking after being thanked, should s/he be corrected.

Let us apply this principle to the barking dog in our head [the amygdala]. It was “bred” to warn us of potential danger. [It’s just trying to keep us alive. Give it a break, already…and maybe some G-water.] Upon first noticing our hackles rise, we should be grateful. It means we’re alive and taking notice of our surroundings. Now, let’s assess the threat: pain & suffering, or just fear, or an annoying intrusion, or our old nemesis, humiliation? At this point, the barking dog should “belt up,” so we can start dealing with the situation.

But, what if it doesn’t “belt up”? What if it winds itself up into a frenzy of over-the-top, adrenaline-fuelled fury? Well, then, we need our own personal command to send it to the Penalty Box. [Coincidentally, in Cognitive Therapy, this is often called “Thought Checking.”] Here’s where the Emotive Speech Function can help. Back in the day, well-brought-up English boys were trained to say “Rats!” [as opposed to an actual oscenity or profanity], whereas girls were encouraged to say “Crumbs!” These quaint bowdlerisms are fun to collect: “Crikey!” “Gor blimey!” “Gordon Bennet!” Whatever the outcry, the meaning–to others and to oneself–is clear: “rush of blood to the head” [amygdala]…”am about to flee, fight, or freeze”…”need to chill.” Interestingly, although being told by another person to “chill” or “relax” [melded these days into “chillax”], only increases one’s sense of humiliation, telling oneself “You must chill!” is often just the ticket, to drain the adrenaline, stop flailing around, and start dealing.

Personally, these days I tell myself “Hearthrug!” [Incidentally, I have never had G-water. It might be vile. I just notice it’s what the Red Wings drink, while chillaxing in the Penalty Box.]

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Filed under aggression happens, leading a pack, limbic system, pragmatics

"Hashi" (Say what?)


The title above demonstrates the Metalingual speech function [first discussed in the Funny Bone post]. I say the Japanese word for “bridge” [not necessarily on the River Kwai], and you ask for clarification [unless you are Lili, in which case you obediently procede to the nearest bridge]. After mastering all our dog trainer’s Japanese commands [many of which Lili also mastered], I came to believe that I could train Lili to do anything, as long as I could find the word for it in a Japanese dictionary. I have created a monster. We decided that it would be cool [in summer, and warm in winter] if we could get Lili to shut the front & side doors behind her, since she had already figured out how to let herself into the house from the outside, but would leave the door ajar. Ten minutes of successive approximation, using the command “Shimaru,” a clicker, and high-value treats [dried lamb lung, I regret to say], and she has become Carlton, Your Doorman, biffing away at an open door as many times as it takes to slam it shut. This skill loses its charm when one is ferrying in several loads of groceries from the garage, and finds the door slammed firmly in one’s face. There are other commands to avoid this…but I digress.

When I am doing psychotherapy, or even hearing/reading people co-opt clinical terms to signify something entirely different from their original meaning, I get all Metalingual about it. My first bete noire is “schizophrenic.” No, it does not mean “in two minds” about something, or acting in two mutually inconsistent ways. That would be to feel ambivalent about something, or to experience cognitive dissonance. DSM-IV criteria for schizophrenia require delusions and/or hallucinations. If one means to signify a Jekyll & Hyde switcheroo between two radically different behavior patterns, that would be a Dissociative Disorder. See, now you can stop a conversation cold in its tracks, by asking a speaker who throws around the term “schizophrenic” just what they think they mean by it.

Another co-opted word is depressed. Do you mean, like, “bummed out about something that just happened,” or that you blame yourself and think you deserve whatever bad thing just happened? [That was Freud’s original distinction in Mourning & Melancholia.] Like, are you sad that the Cubbies lost, or do you think you made them lose and everyone should hate your guts? It makes all sorts of difference to a clinician, what you mean by “depressed.” [Notice how Phatic I am, when trying to understand what the other person means to say? It helps keep the lines of communication open.] Since another early definition for depression was “anger, turned inward,” it is useful to play our old parlor game, “What gets up your nose [about the thing that is ‘depressing’ you]?” Did you brag to your out-of-town friends that the Cubs were going to win, and now you feel humiliated? Did you put your money where your mouth is, so now you are feeling the pain & suffering of a financial loss? Was it a large wager, and now you fear that the bookie is coming to have his pound of flesh, if you can’t pony up? Until you do the wolf-work of figuring out what is eating you [“What’s up your nose?”], you are stuck in that bad place, where amygdalar overload robs your hippocampus of the ability to come up with any good coping strategies, and your pre-frontal cortex can’t stop you from “doing something stupid.”

I also need to know what you really mean, when you say you “feel guilty.” It’s a Rorschach word, signifying quite different things to each “guilty” person–depending on his or her fear of divine and/or karmic retribution, or earthly punishment, or the humiliation of loss of face [for not having lived up to one’s own code of conduct]. Play the parlor game, yourself, and identify the irritants of guilt, for you. I have no doubt that as I write this, in some neuropsych lab, college students’ brains are being scanned with fMRIs, like hi-tech lie-detector tests, to see who experiences what kind of “guilt”–in what area of their brain–upon learning that they have just fulfilled Milgram’s grim prophesy for mankind: that we would all act inhumanely towards another, if given a compelling enough reason to do so.

My final example: disappointed. Everybody would be out cold on the frathouse floor, if the game was to take a drink every time you read/heard that, in the face of egregious behavior [their own, or others’] someone in the news is “disappointed.” What on earth does it mean? Miffed? Perturbed? Crushed? Desolated? Mad as hell? About to act out aggressively and antisocially? Suicidal/homicidal? In every follow-up article about a shooting-spree-ending-in-the-death-of-the-shooter, someone who knew the shooter says that he/she was “disappointed” about something that had recently occurred. So are we all, I dare say; but we don’t all go ballistic about it. Substitute a more descriptive word, the next time you catch yourself using “disappointed”: and you will be well on the way to “knowing, and training, your wolf.”

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Filed under Freud meant..., gets right up my nose, jekyll and hyde, pragmatics, secret code