Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Messing with Our Minds

Today's post is brought to you by the scientists at CERN, who have just started the most ambitious experiment ever (probably). I recommend visiting their website for a good walk-through of the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) particle accelerator and an explanation of how this will not, I repeat not, cause a black hole (most likely - but, hey, even if it does it'll just be a quantum one so no worries).

One of the interesting aspects of this experiment, as explained on the website, is that the energy involved is concentrated in a very small space: "What makes the LHC so extraordinary is that it squeezes energy into a space about a million million times smaller than a mosquito."

The general purpose of this experiment is 'to recreate the conditions existing a few moments after the Big Bang. This allows us to study how our Universe evolved and how it works today. Particle accelerators allow us to look into the inner constituents of matter where a goldmine of open questions is still hidden." 

That last bit makes it sound like they are looking for more questions, rather than for answers. How very Socratic - appropriate for a place that has a Theory Corridor.

Some of the questions they are hoping to find more specific questions about include the origin of mass, unification of fundamental forces, particles or phenomena responsible for dark matter, and the mystery of antimatter. As I said, see the website.

Due to the nature of these big questions it may take a while before major changes in theories about the Universe and Everything trickle down to affect our perceptions of our mundane existence. I'm looking forward to it.

That said, science can only go so far in disturbing our world-view, or even our self-perception. 

Darian Leader recently published an article in The Guardian about Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and how it is representative of a shift in treatment of mental illness and behaviour disorders. One of his main concerns is that CBT offers a more 'scientific' approach for those needing to quantify results (like the NHS).
In some ways this article suffers from the kind of simplistic diagnostic approach for which it criticizes CBT. While I agree that a quick-fix approach to mental distress runs the risk of ignoring deeply set issues in an individual, I do not believe that CBT has no place or that the kind of Freudian psychotherapy that Leader prefers is always relevant.

What I did like in the article was this:
The divided self dear to the 60s has vanished, along with the recognition that grief, despair and frustration strike at the heart of our image of self-possession and fulfillment. The psyche has become like a muscle that needs to be developed and trained. There is no place for complexity and contradiction here: the modern subject is represented as one-dimensional, searching for fulfillment. The possibility that human life is aimed at both success and failure and never simply at wealth, power or happiness no longer makes sense. Suddenly the world of human relatins described by novelists, poets and playwrights for the past few centuries can just be written off. Self-sabotage, masochism and despair are now faults to be corrected, rather than forming the very core of the self.

Leader gets a bit shrill, but I feel I can recognize some of my own anxieties in this. How do we balance correcting faults, so that we can function, with accepting our faults as a feature of our personalities?

Later in the article, Leader sniffs at the story of a bipolar man who uses a simple method, taught to him through CBT, to manage his mood swings and function in his job. While this may not delve deep enough into the man's inner world and unravel his psyche the way Leader would like, it helps him live in this world. Leader believes that "traditional therapies do not aim to give access to a common 'scientific' reality but to take the patient's own reality seriously" but these therapies still define problems with a set of labels. 

Change without understanding may have limited value in some cases; in other cases a person may be well aware of their inner life but unable to change what is essentially a physical, neurological or hormonal problem. Leader wants those facing mental challenges to pay psychotherapists hundreds of pounds per hour to be put through the psychological wringer - and if we reject this suggestion we are shallow and unwilling to face our selves, as well as feeding the great capitalist machine. 

Oh, and he probably wants us to buy his book too.