Psych-Out :: by michael joseph lmsw


To my son after sitting the bench an entire game…

December 14th, 2008

Dear Son –

I often spend my evenings writing.  Well, while writing, I found myself thinking about your first game experience with the JV team tonight.   One of the strongest mental qualities anyone can cultivate is learning how to turn a disappointment into an advantage.  It’s part of what I call resilience – resilience meaning the ability to recover quickly after difficult circumstances.  If fed and nurtured it will take you far in life.

I know those feelings of heartbreak, anger and embarrassment when you sit the bench the entire game.   It’s a good thing to let yourself feel those feelings.  Don’t block them out.  Use their burn to feed that hunger you have to be out there on that court.  Playing hungry motivates, encourages risk, boldness, and strength of spirit.

Hungry players make things happen for themselves and their teammates.  Harry Sheehy — the once basketball coach and now athletic director of Williams College — wrote that every player should have the experience of working their tails off for a whole season while having to sit the bench.   It creates mental toughness, a strong work ethic, along with humility and respect for the game.

Those who are given their chances easily, without having to work hard for them, are those who will have a harder time later in life when facing challenges, obstacles and setbacks that require hard work and perseverance.   You’re learning what it is to bust your butt with no guarantee of succeeding, but are choosing to do it anyway.  It’s a quality to admire and that will take you far.

Watch Mugsy Bogues, 5’3″ NBA player (warning: uncensored strong language)

It’s no lie, as a small guard you will have to work three times harder, play three times smarter, and be three times tougher than everyone else out there.  So be it! Keep at it, challenge yourself, challenge your teammates, hone every aspect of your game in the secret of the practice court — away from the fans, your friends, and the public eye.  When your opportunity comes you will be ready.  (And it will come.  It’s only the first game of a very long season.)

There have been many times in life I’ve had my back against the wall, or I’ve faced setback, embarrassment, or disappointment.  It’s the lessons I’d learned facing these moments in my sports life from which I’ve drawn to pull me through.

Phil Jackson, the former coach of the Bulls, and now coach of the Lakers once said, “There’s more to life than basketball, and there’s more to basketball than basketball.”  If you never a play a minute the whole season (which won’t happen), yet keep pushing yourself just the same, you’ll learn life lessons that will take you far beyond the high school basketball court.


He Got Game, Public Enemy

I’m Certain!

November 3rd, 2008

“…the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”    Leo Tolstoy.

Life besets us with gambles.  Do I invest in stocks or stash my money under the mattress? Do I leave my job for more money now, or wait it out for that promotion? Is it Obama, or McCain? Yet, choose we must. And, it always feels better coming to the table knowing that our choice is absolutely the right one.

Our feeling of certainty is seldom the result of logical analysis.  In reality, it’s an involuntary mental sensation firing off deeply in our brain’s circuitry.  First, we think a thought.  Then, we make an involuntary assessment of the accuracy of that thought.  When that assessment lights up our reward circuitry, we glow beneath that hot, intoxicating feeling “I am right!”

Archimeses shouting, "Eureka!"

Archimedes shouting, "Eureka!"

Our perceptual circuitry has evolved to reinforce our conclusions, whether or not the information we receive is convincing. During elections, how many of us actually go seek out information against our pet candidate, party, or issue.   In fact, if you’re honest with yourself, you might have to agree that any thought of doing just that is met inside your head with a resounding “No!”

Research has shown that we determine whether something is good or bad within a quarter of a second.  The rest is mental fine tuning.  Once that evaluation is made, we are primed to seek out evidence upholding that initial evaluation and avoid, or spin, information that contradicts it.  First impressions are highly weighted in our perceptual system, and thus powerful cues to the formation and sustaining of our beliefs.

Ask a subject to evaluate a person’s happiness, or sociability, or likeability on the basis of a list of adjectives describing him.  Envious.  Stubborn.  Critical.  Industrious.  Talkative.  Intelligent. If the list is given in the above order, the subjects will rate the person negatively.  Reverse the order — same words, same person — the subjects will rate the person positively (Myers, 2007).

Our brains have evolved in favor of rapid evaluation about the world around us.  First impressions bring us to certainty most quickly.  In low complexity, high danger situation, it’s highly adaptive to go with “gut instinct.”  We give up accuracy, yet gain in our capacity to leap quickly into action. In more complex situations, especially ones where we have more time to think, this mental tendency leaves us vulnerable to prejudice, premature judgment, and possibly costly error.

If you want to be truly fair in your evaluation of a circumstance and you’re not running from a saber-tooth tiger:  question your initial perceptions;  spend time looking for evidence that you are wrong;  in forming an impression of a person (or object) try to break your judgment down into his (or its) separate qualities without letting any strikingly good or bad first impression influence your opinion about the remainder; and,  practice suspending judgment, especially in light of that great feeling of “I know I’m right!”

Finally, beware of people who claim absolute certainty on matters where certainty is impossible.  As neurologist and “certainty” researcher Robert Burton suggests, “Intuitions, gut feelings and hunches are neither right nor wrong but tentative ideas that must then be submitted to testing. If such testing isn’t possible (such as in deciding whether or not to pull out of Iraq), then we must accept that any absolute stance is merely a personal vision, not a statement of fact.”

Rummy’s “Theory of Knowing.”


Lehrer, J. (2008). The Certainty Bias: A Potentially Dangerous mental Flaw. Scientific American.

Mlodinow, L. (2008). The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives. New York: Pantheon Books.

Myers, D. G. (2007). The Powers and Perils of Intuition. Scientific American Mind, Vol. 18, No. 3, 24-31.

Smells like teen spirit

October 19th, 2008

Okay, so my son sags his pants. When I was 15, the hem of my raggedy bell-bottoms dragged under my shoes. A dozen fights with horrified mom and dad. A dozen garbage rescues. In all primate species — whether we’re talking about humans, baboons, or macaques– the young are most likely to have the accident doing some foolhardy thing, while their elders shake their heads and cluck “I told you so.”

Ahhhh…those foolhardy skater dudes!

And yet, it’s the young who often push the world forward. Alexander the Great founded his first colony at the age of 16. Joan of Arc led the French army before the age of 20. The Beatles were 17 year old kids when they took the world by storm in 1960 and changed the sound of pop music forever.

1960 Beatles — and we’d never be the same

Something new? It’s not mom and pop who embrace it. It’s the same with all primates. When japanese snow monkeys discovered washing food in seawater, it was the youngsters who picked up the practice. The old folks looked on dumbfounded, if they looked on at all. Have a computer problem? Who would you trust more, the retired accountant across the road, or your 14 year old saggy panted son?

Snow Monkey at play

Snow Monkey at play

Some researchers point to the prefrontal cortex, which has been shown to be not yet fully formed in the teen brain. As a result, teens may find it difficult to override certain impulses in face of logic. Researcher Robert Epstein says not so fast. Correlation does not mean causation. According to him, the idea of a teen brain different from an adult brain is “a hoax, pushed to some extent by drug companies who are funding research.” Research in mental functioning has shown that teens are as competent as adults across a wide range of abilities. Studies of intelligence, perceptual abilities and memory function show that teens, in fact, are in many instances far superior to adults.

Paul Anka croons Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit”??

One thing for sure, all social primates have evolved a tendency for its youngsters to take off into the wilds and leave the safety of their own group. In chimps it would be the girls. In the Old World monkeys, like baboons, it’s the boys. According to neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, “It’s a simple fact driven by genetics and evolution: if everyone stayed on, matured, and reproduced there, and if their kids stayed on, and their kids’ kids too, then ultimately everyone would be pretty closely related.” (Sapolsky p. 78) Genetically, not a good idea.

Still, what’s going on in our primate genes, hormones, and neurotransmitters to make us hit the road? Why would we risk predators, disease, and loneliness? Animals hate novelty. And according to basic behaviorist theories, we tend to do things for which we are rewarded and tend to avoid things for which we get punished. And it’s not that we primates are pushed out. We choose it!

“We don’t know,” Sapolsky admits. “But we do know that following this urge is one of the most resonantly primate of acts. A young male baboon stands riveted at the river’s edge…To hell with logic and sensible behavior, to hell with tradition and respecting your elders, to hell with this drab little town, and to hell with that knot of fear in my stomach.”

Extreme bikers raising the hair on the back of your neck.

So, next time you see a teen with his jeans sagged down to his knees and grinding his skateboard down a handrail, smile and recognize that it’s his version of setting out into the open savanna. He’s following a deep seated urge as old as the hills and programmed somewhere deeply in his other set of genes.

Skateboarder Rodney Mullens — sagged pants and all

“Smells like Teen Spirit” Take 2 — String Quartet Tribute


Epstein, Robert. “The Myth of the Teen Brain,” Scientific American Mind Vol. 18, No. 2 (2007): 57-63.

Sabbagh, Leslie. “The Teen Brain, Hard At Work,” Scientific American Mind Vol. 17, No. 4 (2006): 21-25.

Sapolsky, Robert M. The Trouble With Testosterone. New York: Touchstone, 1998.


September 17th, 2008

When was the last time you felt that zing in your step? Sitting in front of a TV devouring a bag of chips? Or, when challenging your strength, endurance, eye-hand coordination, or capacity to build or create. It’s in our wiring to run, to lift, to hike, to climb, and work with our hands. Motion thrills us. We can become drenched in a glow of pleasure and satisfaction when we solve complex problems with our bodies.

From our earliest beginnings, we have scavenged, foraged, hunted, and migrated. We’ve populated every climate and terrain — a feat no other species can claim. For tens of thousands of years we beat unfathomable odds — defeating ice, torential rains, droughts, predators, mountain ranges, and raging waterways. How? By flaking stones, hollowing tree trunks, throwing spears, cutting branches, gathering fruits, mending hides, tying knots, and building fires.

We were groomed by natural selection and the forces of nature not only to survive, but to thrive in lands of scarcity, unpredictability, and danger. 2 million years of it. We’ve populated lands as varied as the savanna’s of Africa, the deserts of Arabia, the rain forests of Indochina, the frozen arctic ice scapes of Siberia and Alaska, the vast open plains of the Americas.

Today, however, we can spend months with our only physical challenge being a couple dozen daily walks to and from our refrigerators, cars, and computer screens. We can migrate from Detroit to Hong Kong in a comfortable 72 degrees, never to sweat, freeze, or feel a single raindrop moisten our skin. No one wants to turn back the time and return to the hardship and strife of our ancestors. Yet, has something been lost to us living in a world so stripped of physical challenge?

Neuroscientist Kelly Lambert has theorized that what we’ve gained in convenience we may have lost in activities that boost psychological resilience. Our brain’s reward circuitry exhibits far more activity when we expend effort to obtain a reward, than when there’s no expenditure of effort at all. Both physical and mental effort strengthens our brain’s reward-pleasure circuitry. Although we crave leisure, we are truly happier when engaging complex challenges.

Our brain’s pleasure/reward circuitry is dependent upon a neurotransmitter called dopamine and its corresponding dopamine receptors. When we exert ourselves in anticipation of that sought-after reward, happy dopamine pours into the system. This neuro-activity is what brings about that feeling of self-satisfaction. When we live a life that requires less and less physical effort, our dopaminergic system shrinks. Our reward circuitry fires less often and with less zing, perhaps making us more prone to depression, anxiety, and day-to-day numbness

You want to give your life a boost? Seek out activities that challenge and engage both your mind and body. Rock climb. Canoe. Garden. Take up pottery, tennis, woodworking, or slight-of-hand magic. Buy a motorcycle and let the wind blow across your face. Baby, we were born to run.

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

What’s in a kiss?

July 18th, 2008

You gaze into his or her eyes. Your breathing deepens. Your pupils dilate. Your ribcage can’t hold back the drumming of your heart. You lean close. His or her breath warms your lips. You’ve crossed the threshold. There’s no turning back. Reason slides into retreat. What’s left but to surrender. Casanova proclaimed, “I don’t conquer, I submit.”

What’s in a kiss? The thinnest layers of skin. Moreover, the lips, together with the tongue, enjoy more sensory neurons per square centimeter than anywhere else on the body. Those neurons trigger an intoxicating cocktail of densely packed sensation. To the brain, sensation is information – texture, temperature, taste, smell. Who is this man? Who is this woman?

If you were to scan the brains of two lovers gazing into each other’s eyes you’d find a flurry of neuronal firing in the right ventral tegmental area and the right caudate nucleus. These areas are central to the brain’s reward centers — the same centers jacked up by cocaine. Add a kiss? Love is the drug, indeed.

Love is the Drug, Roxy Music

Evolutionary psychologist Gordon G. Gallup has theorized that kissing conveys subconscious information about a prospective mate’s genetic compatibility. (1) This information passes beneath our awareness through the tactile (touch) and olfactory (smell) sensory systems. Now here’s where evolutionary theorists often step onto thin ice, even ones who should know better. And here’s where throughout human history bazillions of the love struck have fallen into heartbreak’s abyss. Genetic compatibility doesn’t insure a great partner any more than does great kissing.

Genes don’t “care” whether that man or woman you’re smooching will be that hall-of- fame mate or not. Genes are out to replicate themselves. The information gathered doesn’t have to be accurate, just good enough to get that job done. Our choices are always a gamble. Chance always lurks about life’s table. Our senses help us sort the odds. If his kiss is soft, wet, and passionate, maybe it shows he’s invested enough to stick around. Maybe. If her mouth melts and she slides her tongue against yours, maybe she’ll be yours. Maybe. We have to base our guesses on something. What’s closer to the scan of our senses than a kiss?

It may be, instead, that the information our brain tracks in those devouring lips helps us weed out the genetic misfits. It’s a more efficient evolutionarily strategy to let us in on what to avoid, than to show us what we are going for. Bad smell, disgusting taste, rough and nervously tight lips. (Evolutionarily, a high probability sign of poor health, weak temperament, and unfavorable genes.) It may be hard to be certain if he or she is that forever mate with great genes, but we certainly will tingle with delight over that good kisser, and shove ourselves off from the bad. For better and worse, for richer and poorer, and sometimes even in spite of all reason, most of us find ourselves playing the odds in favor of that pair of luscious, tasty, simmering lips.


(1) Walter, Chip. “Affairs of the Lips,” Scientific American Mind Vol. 19, No. 1 (2008): 24-29.

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