Repent for the Cosmic Castration Is Upon Us (part I)

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By now you’ve probably read the following disturbing headline:

Young Risk-Takers Drawn to Dangerous ‘Choking Game’

Kathleen Doheny wrote this article for HealthDay, an article that profiles research conducted by Robert Nystrom, adolescent health manager at the Oregon Public Health Division in Portland. The article hit the web on April 16th, 2012. Here’s Doheny’s tagline:

Study finds 6% of Oregon eighth graders admitted trying it, two-thirds had played more than once.

Simply, these games, which go by such names as Knock Out, Space Monkey, Flatlining, and Fainting Game, have a simple design and purpose: to use some form of choking—belts or ropes typically—to deprive the brain of blood, and, as a result, oxygen. A simple question immediately comes to mind: why engage in such risky behavior? As Doheny points out in her article, it’s typically to get a euphoric high. Again, this type of behavior boggles the mind. And, yes, death is a very real possibility. Using data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Doheny discovered that between the years 1995 and 2007 82 children have died as a result of choking games. What’s interesting is that Nystrom’s research shows that this choking behavior cuts across gender lines (e.g., it is equally practiced by both boys and girls). Equally interesting, “those who did participate [in choking games] tended to engage in other risky behavior” (quoting Doheny) such as substance abuse and inappropriate sexual behavior. How do we even go about trying to understand this desire to separate body from mind, or, to put it another way, “castrate” body from mind?

In my post of August 25th, 2011, I mentioned the Facebook–narcissim link with respect to kids. On November 21st, 2011, I commented on an article that announced that one in twelve teens engages in self harm behavior. On March 13th, 2012, I suggested that we are using behavioral drugs to objectify kids by artificially enhancing their study habits. On April 2nd, 2012, I discussed Sherry Turkle’s idea that kids are attaching to sociable robots like smartphones, Facebook, and Furbies (small fury robots). Taken with the above choking game data, are these just a bunch of random data points on a scattergram, or is there a pattern? Should we be spending time connecting the dots? In the next series of posts, I’d like to take a shot at connecting the dots.

To get started allow me to tell you this quick story. It was the spring of 1997 and it was the first meeting of my Marriage and Family Counseling course. The course was taught by Dr. William Krieger. Within the first hour, Dr. Krieger found himself embroiled in the middle of a revolt. I’ve taken many graduate level courses; this was my first class revolt. Why were students revolting? Dr. Krieger made one simple statement: “I do not believe in premarital therapy.” As it turns out, about half of the class consisted of students who wished to go on to become licensed Christian counselors. These students believed that premarital therapy was a critical first step toward a happy and fulfilling marriage. Dr. Krieger effectively said that this belief is hogwash, a sentiment that sparked the revolt. Here’s how Dr. Krieger explained his position.

Dr. Krieger told us that he used to engage in premarital therapy because, like a large percentage of the class, he believed that premarital therapy did work and was important. But then he noticed a pattern: usually within six months of getting married (and after having received premarital therapy), couples ended up back in his office and at each other’s throat. Dr. Kreiger wondered to himself, “What is going on here that the premarital therapy, which seemed to go so well, was ultimately failing?” Dr. Kreiger told us that he did a bit of research and what he found surprised him. Apparently cognitive science suggests that before marriage we tend to operate out of a conscious mind that is very much wedded to social and cultural norms. I guess you could say that this is Freud’s superego. But after marriage—after some form of public commitment ceremony—the unconscious (or maybe Freud’s id) rears it’s typically ugly head. Dr. Kreiger told us that what he discovered was that in premarital therapy, principally one is working with the conscious mind, a conscious mind who wishes to be on his or her best behavior. But for premarital therapy to be effective, one needs to bring the unconscious mind into the room. Dr. Kreiger simply stated (and I paraphrase):

Until I can have the unconscious mind in my office, I cannot do effective marriage counseling. That’s why I stopped doing premarital therapy. I would tell couples to get married, live together for six months, and then if problems developed, come back and we can start the real therapy: marrying two unconscious minds.

Well, the Christian counselors to be would have none of this. They told Dr. Krieger that he was crazy. I have to admit, early on I agreed with them. Several students got up and walked out never to be seen from again. Dr. Krieger had hit a nerve by in essence saying that premarital therapy was a crock. And this was a Marriage and Family Counseling course after all. Again, that was my one and only student revolt. It really was intense. It goes to show how much people are wedded to certain worldviews.

Fast forward to the present and I just recently finished neurobiologist Antonio Damasio’s 2010 book Self Comes to Mind. As most of you know I am a big Damasio fan. I have read all of his popular books. This is his fourth. Maybe you are familiar with such titles as Descartes’ Error, or The Feeling of What Happens, or even Looking for Spinoza. Well, do you wish to take a stab at what the central theme of Self Comes to Mind is? Yup, the marriage (or lack thereof) between the unconscious, emotional brain, and the conscious, rational brain. Dr. Krieger’s intuition and research was right on: not only does conscious mind marry conscious mind, but unconscious mind has to also marry unconscious mind.

“So, where does all of this talk of ‘Cosmic Castration’ come in?” you may be asking. Fair enough. Even though I’m a big fan of Damasio’s work (to the point of sharing a few emails back in early 2004) I found myself reacting to some of his descriptions of how the unconscious and conscious minds “get hitched” with words such as quaint and old fashioned. Why? Because in my opinion (informed by a lot of research—see my 2011 book Bowlby’s Battle), we are in a period of time that sees the body being systematically severed (castrated) from the mind. I would suggest that all of the above headlines I mention—self harm, chocking games, narcissism, behavioral drugs—map or point the way toward this Cosmic Castration. And even though castration is typically associated with the male anatomy, Cosmic Castration (like choking games) cuts across gender boundaries.

In my next post I’ll dive into talking about the last chapter in Self Comes to Mind, chapter 11. This chapter is entitled Living With Consciousness. I recommend that you read the entire book, but chapter 11 is where Damasio talks about the biological, social, economic, and even political implications of unconscious mind relating to conscious mind. You can take the Foundation out of Bowlbian attachment theory, but you cannot take Bowlbian attachment theory out of the Foundation. Damasio suggests that for an autonomous mind to emerge the unconscious and conscious minds must learn to not only get along but to also enrich each other. Here’s what Bowlby in essence said (a mantra often repeated at attachment conferences):

Early safe and secure attachment relationships (if all goes well) often lead to the formation of open and flexible Inner Working Models that, in turn, form the foundation upon which an autonomous self is built.

Using Damasio’s work as a background, I would suggest that the various attachment patterns—secure, insecure distanced, insecure ambivalent, or disorganized—are “marriage patterns”—patterns of behavior representing how well the unconscious and conscious minds are getting along so-to-speak. I would further suggest that the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI)—a research tool specifically designed to trigger the attachment behavioral system, and, as a result, both the unconscious and conscious minds simultaneously—is one way to investigate these marriage patterns. All of the attachment patterns represent relationships between the unconscious and conscious minds. Some marriage patterns lead to peace and harmony and adaptability; others lead to what Peter Marris calls self-defeating behaviors. Well, what are self-defeating behaviors?—cutting, self harm, alcohol abuse, overeating, substance abuse, risk-taking behaviors, choking games, narcissism, inappropriate sexual activity (i.e., hooking up). Again, insecure attachment patterns do allow relationships to form between the unconscious and conscious minds, sadly though, these relationships often are self-defeating. So, you have two options: 1) improve the nature of the attachment patterns so that self-enhancement takes place, or, 2) sever (castrate) body from mind. I’ll let you ponder which of these two options the above headlines—cutting, self harm, alcohol abuse, overeating, substance abuse, risk-taking behaviors, choking games, narcissism, inappropriate sexual activity—point to. I’ll leave you with this quote from Self Comes to Mind (and hopefully pique your interest for part II):

One effect of the so-called substances of abuse is to restore the lost balance [between body and mind] rapidly and transiently. … [R]ejecting the possibility of rapid correction of suffering takes enormous effort, even for those who already know that the correction is short-lived and the consequences of the choice may be dire.