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highlight Adam Alter is the author of Drunk Tank Pink: The Subconscious Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel and Behave (Bloomsbury). An assistant professor of marketing and psychology at NYU, his research focuses on the intersection of behavioral economics, marketing, and the psychology of judgment and decision-making. Adam’s publications include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Psychology Today and the Atlantic.

Adam will be giving a Lunchbox/Soapbox at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday 1 May. In the lead-up, we spoke to him about loving academia, why it’s powerful to get feedback from children on your work, and his advice for aspiring writers: write a letter or an email to 20 of your favourite writers, explaining your aspirations and asking for advice.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first piece I had published was an academic paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A.. My grad school advisor and I found that you could predict the performance of shares on the stock market based on their names: companies with simpler names do better than those with complex names, particularly when they first enter the markets. My first piece in print in a mainstream outlet was an op-ed in the New York Times. I summarised some of the ideas from my book to argue that people become different versions of themselves in different locations: walk through a messy place and you become a litterbug; walk through an area filled with people and you become misanthropic. Basically, there are hundreds − thousands? − of versions of each of us, each version reflecting the world around us at any moment in time.

What’s the best part of your job?

The variety in what I do. I conduct academic research, write academic papers, teach students, advice Ph.D. candidates, write books and articles, consult companies and government agencies, speak at conferences, non-profits, company events, college ceremonies, and so on. Academia is terrific, because you can study exactly what interests you. You carve out a path that combines all the elements that you enjoy while minimising the ones you don’t enjoy.

What’s the worst part of your job?

This is a much harder question − which is good news! The worst part, I think, is that people move around so much in academia that your close friends and family members end up scattered across the globe. I left Sydney to study in the US, and I’m now married and settled in New York City. I love living in New York, but my parents and brother are in Sydney, and most of the friends I made at grad school and as a professor are in Europe or Australia or Asia or Africa or South America or other parts of North America − and very few of them are still in New York. If I could bring together everyone who was special to me (and move New York to a warmer part of the country!), I’d consider my job close to perfect.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

drunktankLast week one of my colleagues told me that his ten-year-old son is studying a chapter from my book, Drunk Tank Pink, at his school in Brooklyn. In the chapter I talk about the power of labels − how important it is to be careful when we describe people by their race, ethnicity, religion, physical size, and so on. The students are working on projects based on the chapter, and they’re presenting their findings to the entire school. I’m visiting the class in May to talk to them about the book, and more importantly, to hear what they found interesting, important, and puzzling. It’s always flattering to hear that an adult enjoys something you’ve written, but for me it’s much more powerful to get the same feedback from a child.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best advice was to turn everything into a story. Humans transmit information across the ages as narratives, and the bits of information that endure are embedded in stories. One reason why people remember religious texts for thousands of years is that they’re packed with great stories. This year, Darren Aronofsky is releasing Noah, a film about Noah and the Ark. Growing up, I watched Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments over and over and over again. I’m not religious, and you don’t have to be observant to appreciate those stories. In the end, any piece of information can be fashioned into a story. The best writers sell their ideas by puffing them up with details, anecdotes, and tangents that turn dry information into something digestible, transmissible, and memorable.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Nothing specific pops out, but much of what I’ve written has been published in places where readers offer comments. It’s always interesting to hear what people like, what they dislike, and how they connect your writing to ideas that hadn’t entered your mind till they explained the relationship.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Life would be different, but I’d still teach and advise and consult and speak.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Absolutely. I’m not sure there’s any skill that fundamentally can’t be taught. Some people are naturally stronger than others − at writing and everything else − but teaching brings you closer to your potential. I’ve been taught so much by so many excellent writers, much of it in the form of specific approaches or concrete tips. Either you know about those techniques, or you don’t, and the difference is a matter of education.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Write a letter or an email to 20 of your favourite writers, explain your writing aspirations as specifically as you can, and ask them for the single best piece of advice they have to offer. Most won’t reply, but some will, and when you hit the wall as you begin to pursue your aspirations, you’ll be able to reread the advice of someone who hit and managed to climb the same wall years earlier.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I try to buy my books from small, local bookstores, but they’re disappearing in New York City and everywhere else. When I can’t find books at the store, or need them in a hurry, I’ll order them online.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

When you write fiction you can take any personality characteristic and exaggerate it to the point of absurdity. I’d pick a character that reflects that approach − a fictional genius (like Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Gregory House), or someone with otherworldly street smarts (like House of Cards’ Francis Urquhart). There’s plenty of time for fun and good food later; I’d try to learn as much as possible about what makes this fictional genius tick.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Philip Roth’s novella, Goodbye, Columbus. It’s an impeccably told story, and Roth’s protagonist, Neil Klugman, seems so real that you see aspects of him in almost everyone you know. But the main reason why the book had such an effect on me is that it tells the story of transience and change better than any other piece of writing I’ve read. It tells of one mostly glorious summer in Klugman’s life, which, as all summers do, eventually ends. That concept really speaks to me, because I’ve lived on three continents, in large cities and in small towns, sometimes surrounded by close friends and family, but at other times relatively isolated. When things change − for the better or for the worse − I always think about (and sometimes reread for the thousandth time) Goodbye, Columbus.


Adam Alter will talk about Drunk Tank Pink: The Subconscious Forces That Shape How we Think, Feel and Behave at a Lunchbox/Soapbox event at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday 1 May, 12.45pm.

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16 April 2014

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We share our favourite finds from around the internet this week.


New research shows psychopaths can feel empathy

A brain-imaging study of 18 violent, psychopathic criminals in the Netherlands, the largest such study undertaken, suggests they can summon empathy when prompted. ‘Empathic circuits that are unconsciously activated in the brains of normal people may be dormant or switched off in psychopaths – not absent, as commonly thought. Those circuits, the study showed, can be activated after psychopaths are prompted to see a situation from someone else’s point of view.’

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Germany’s power plants documented before they close

Germany will close all its nuclear power plants by 2022 – German photographer Michael Danner visited 17 power plants, to document them before they disappear. ‘I wanted to document these sites because to a lot of people they are just a name or an idea,’ he told Wired. He’s tried to take an objective view of the plants, and to photograph them in the context of the countryside they’re located in, and the huamns who work there.

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Neil Gaiman releases his first video game

Shape-shifting writer Neil Gaiman has taken on a new guise, adding to his roles as graphic novelist, YA and adult novelist, and occasional journalist – now, he’s a video game designer.

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Wayward Manor is inspired by Gaiman’s love of both supernatural and slapstick genres. The game follows the misadventures of a ghost who wants nothing more than a peaceful afterlife, and to kick out the motley crew living in the house he once called home.


Watch: Gaiman’s 2011 appearance at the Wheeler Centre

Natalie Portman to direct film of Amos Oz’s memoir

Natalie Portman will make her directing debut with a film of Israeli novelist Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. The book details Oz’s childhood in Jerusalem in the chaotic period at the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, as well as the writer’s experiences during the early years of the state of Israel and teenage years on a kibbutz.

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Oz has been working on a screenplay, and says that he sold the rights to the Jerusalem-born Portman five or six years ago. ‘I agreed because of my high esteem for her work. She’s an excellent actor,’ he said.


Watch: Amos Oz on Israel: War, Peace and Storytelling

America in the 70s

Last week, the Atlantic ran a week of photo essays, featuring regions of the US covered by the photographers of the Documerica Project in the early 1970s.

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Brooklyn payphones, in 1974. This photo was taken a month before the first mobile phone call was placed.

The project was put together by the Environmental Protection Agency and its goal was to document adverse effects of modern life on the environment – but photographers were also encouraged to capture the daily lives of ordinary people.

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Empty steel beer and soft drink cans were accumulated from a variety of sources near Taos, New Mexico, to be used in building experimental houses. 1974.

Regions covered include New York, the south-west, Chicago’s African-American community and Texas.

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Las Vegas, Nevada, 1972.

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02 August 2013

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meds The DSM – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – is recognised today as the bible of psychiatry. A comprehensive list of all the mental illnesses that officially exist and their symptoms, this book is extraordinarily powerful: the words within its pages have influenced countless lives.

But have those lives changed for the better? Is the DSM a scientific benchmark or, as some have attested, is it – like changing skirt lengths – driven by fashion?

Psychiatrist Robert Spitzer was the man who created the manual’s elevated standing (and hefty size). When he took on the job of editing DSM-3, in 1973, it was just 134 pages long, and hardly anyone had heard of it.

‘What nobody knew when they offered Spitzer the job was that he had a plan: to try to remove human judgement from psychiatry,’ writes Jon Ronson, in his book The Psychopath Test.

‘For six years Spitzer held editorial meetings at Columbia. They were chaos. The psychiatrists would yell out the names of potential new mental disorders and the checklists of their symptoms and there would be a cacophony of voices in assent or dissent – the loudest voices getting listened to the most. If Spitzer agreed with those proposing a new diagnosis, which he almost always did, he’d hammer it out instantly on an old typewriter. And there it would be, set in stone.’

‘That’s how practically every disorder you’ve ever heard of or been diagnosed with came to be defined.’

When the new DSM was published, in 1980, it was 494 pages long.

Ronson describes the result, with 83 new disorders, as a ‘gold rush for drug companies’; Spitzer agrees.

‘I love to hear parents who say, “It was impossible to live with him until we gave him medication and then it was night and day”,’ he told Ronson happily.

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Jon Ronson: Says the ever-expanding DSM is a ‘gold rush for drug companies’.


Bipolar disorder was one of those additions to DSM-3. In 2000, childhood bipolar – previously thought to be rare, even non-existent, before adolescence – was added to the DSM-4.

Allen Frances, editor of DSM-4, has recently talked about regretting his role in the further expansion of classified mental illnesses (32 more disorders were added and the manual grew to 886 pages under his editorship). What he calls the ‘false epidemic’ of childhood bipolar is one of his most pressing areas of concern.

Childhood bipolar really took off at Massachusetts General Hospital, where prominent child psychiatrists developed the theory that developmental differences in children mean that they have a different bipolar presentation from that of adults. ‘Rather than clear-cut cycles of mania and depression, bipolar kids were said to have continuous irritability, moodiness, and behaviour problems,’ wrote Allen Frances for Huffington Post recently.

He says that the backers of this approach lobbied hard for their new definition to be included in the DSM, but it was rejected for lack of scientific evidence. ‘This did not inhibit the enthusiasm of the new thought leaders in child psychiatry as they spread their new gospel.’


Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan wrote a long profile on childhood bipolar for the New York Times in 2008. She reported that ‘nearly every clinician [she] spoke to said that bipolar illness is being overdiagnosed in kids’; in studies by the National Institute of Mental Health, ‘only 20 per cent of children identified with bipolar disorder are found to meet the strict criteria for the disease’.

Why does this matter? Children diagnosed as bipolar are medicated with antipsychotic and mood stabilising drugs that have serious side effects. Complications include major weight gain, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and possibly shortened life expectancy.

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Jennifer Egan found that ‘nearly every clinician’ she spoke to for her New York Times article said that ‘bipolar illness is being overdiagnosed in kids’.

‘The problem is not that medications are being used at all (sometimes they have to be), but that they are being used so much, so carelessly, so early in life, and for such inappropriate and sometimes trivial indications,’ says Frances.

Jennifer Egan found that the drugs used to treat irritable, aggressive children are often the same as those used for bipolar disorder; she spoke to one of those psychiatrists who were influential in the redefinition of childhood polar, Janet Wozniak (director of the pediatric bipolar-disorder program at Massachusetts General Hospital). All but one of the manic children in her original study had ADHD; Egan found that ‘a severely irritable child who has ADHD could be, theoretically, only one symptom away from a bipolar diagnosis’.

Gabrielle Carson, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine, has studied childhood childhood mania for many years, disagrees with the new childhood bipolar. She told Egan that it is rare in children under ten and presents in the same discrete episodes of mania and depression as bipolar adults, not in chronic irritability.

She believes that a large group of aggressive and explosive children who are ‘diagnostically homeless’ are being relabelled as bipolar – and that this is a concern.


Jennifer Egan also spent time with the families of children diagnosed with bipolar.

One family, where the parents are both bipolar, had two bipolar children; the whole family are medicated for it. This may not be as odd as it seems; a recent study shows that children with even one bipolar parent are 13 times more likely to develop the disease.

Marie’s daughter Phia was ‘overstimulated almost from birth’, becoming hysterical in response to ordinary sights and sounds – her mother couldn’t wear coloured shirts, for example. Phia tormented her brother and had silly moods that spiralled out of control. ‘She was asking for medicine for at least a year or so,’ Marie told Egan. She asked, ‘Isn’t there anything they can give me to help me calm down?’

Much of her extreme behaviour eased with medication, though it has fluctuated, with her medication adjusted accordingly. Phia’s friends don’t know she’s bipolar and she worries the would judge her for it; Marie says her parents and siblings don’t believe her children are bipolar and disapprove the medication, while the school also has doubts. Marie herself has questioned it; the the burden of responsibility for her children’s diagnoses weighs heavily on her.

‘I re-experience some mourning or grieving for the kids with each medicine change,’ she told Egan. ‘The unknowns are so daunting and somehow I feel guilty for taking such risks.’


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Rebecca Riley: Diagnosed with childhood bipolar aged two-and-a-half.

In 2006, in Boston, Massachusetts, four-year-old Rebecca Riley died of an accidental overdose of the antipsychotic medication she’d been prescribed for her bipolar disorder (diagnosed when she was two-and-half). Her parents, who were convicted of murder, had ‘got into the habit of feeding her the medicines to shut her up when she was being annoying,’ wrote Jon Ronson.

Her mother, Carolyn Riley, was interviewed by 60 Minutes after Rebecca’s death. Ronson reports the following exchange:

Reporter: Do you really think Rebecca had bipolar disorder?

CR: Probably not.

Reporter: What do you think was wrong with her now?

CR: I don’t know. Maybe she was just hyper for her age.


Join us next Tuesday night for our Intelligence Squared debate on whether Our Children Are Over Diagnosed. Melbourne Town Hall, 6.30pm-8.30pm.

Speakers for the proposition are Jane Caro, Martin Whitely, author of Speed Up and Sit Still: The Controversies of ADHD and Jon Jureidini, child psychiatrist, professor in psychiatry and paediatrics at Adelaide University and spokesman for Healthy Skepticism.

Speakers against the proposition are Nicole Rogerson, CEO of Autism Awareness Australia and director of the Lizard Children’s Centre, Katie Allen, paediatric gastroenterologist and allergist in the field of Food Allergy at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, and Jane Burns, public health academic and advocate, and CEO of Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre.

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12 June 2013

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Our picks from the internet this week.

Guardian Australia launch

There’s been a huge buzz this week about the much-anticipated launch of Guardian Australia, which finally happened on Monday. Original Australian content includes David Marr’s first piece as staff writer, reporting on George Pell’s testimony on the issue of abuse in the Catholic church.

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David Marr: Now writing for Guardian Australia

Elmo Keep has been vocally arguing against the Guardian’s reposting content from a selection of Australian websites without paying the original writers (which is not unique to the Guardian, we should say), and has pointed interested readers to her recent article on the problems with the free economy.

Amazon one-star reviews of famous novels

This collection of one-star Amazon reviews of books in Time magazine’s 100 best novels of all time is hilarious …Of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, the reviewer says, ‘Obviously, a lot people were smoking a lot of weed in the ’60s to think this thing is worth reading.’ John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is incredulously dismissed as ‘about dirt!’. And someone writes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: ‘I am obsessed with Survivor, so I thought it would be fun. WRONG!!!’ This was our favourite, though, on C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe:

I bought these books to have something nice to read to my grandkids. I had to stop, however, because the books are nothing more than advertisements for ‘Turkish Delight’, a candy popular in the U.K. The whole point of buying books for my grandkids was to give them a break from advertising, and here (throughout) are ads for this ‘Turkish Delight’! How much money is this Mr. Lewis getting from the Cadbury’s chocolate company anyway? This man must be laughing to the bank.

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Tilda Swinton in the film version – handing out Turkish Delights.

Jessica Francis Kane: How to be a publicist

We serendipitously stumbled on this beautifully written, wryly funny little memoir essay about working in publishing in New York, by writer Jessica Francis Kane, yesterday. It’s a delicious trip down the memory lane of the recent past, when press releases were faxed and phone calls were the main method of communication (not an email in sight). And it’s the all-too-familiar story of a book-loving English graduate who wants to be an editor, but falls into publicity instead. Jessica Francis Kane is now the author of the novel The Report and the short-story collection The Close.

When I’m home, all the friends and neighbours who have heard I work in publishing think I’m an editor. Explaining to each of them what a publicist does is tiring. After a few glasses of wine, however, it gets easier. It’s a bit like be

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31 May 2013

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First ads for famous books

A new book, Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements, gives a fascinating peek at how famous writers were packaged and pitched to the reading public – before they were famous.

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Just Kids: Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and pals

And on the topic of writerly nostalgia, we stumbled on this deliciously gossipy, luxuriously long article from New York magazine on the links and friendships between American writers like Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and David Foster Wallace before they were famous. There’s some great writing and little-known facts in here.

Did you know David Foster Wallace had Mary Karr’s name tattooed on his arm and once threw a coffee table at her? Or that the first time Jonathan Franzen heard from a peer was when DFW wrote to praise his first novel? ‘I was desperate for friends,’ Franzen later recalled.

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Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace at the launch of Infinite Jest.

Psychopathy and the American Presidency

New research shows that ‘fearless dominance associated with psychopathy’ could be an important predictor of how well a president performs. The analysis drew on personality assessments of 42 presidents, up to and including George W. Bush.

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‘Fearless dominance, linked to low social and physical apprehensiveness, correlates with better-rated presidential performance for leadership, persuasiveness, crisis management and Congressional relations,’ concluded lead author Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University.

‘Women don’t write here’: Newsweek in the Mad Men era

In the Mad Men-era, women at Newsweek were told that ‘women don’t write here’, even though they had been through the same college educations as their male colleagues. Women like Nora Ephron and Susan Brownmiller escaped to more welcoming environments. But in 1970, 46 women sued for gender discrimination, in the first lawsuit of its kind.

When the rest of us saw that guys who graduated from the same schools without any professional experience got hired as reporters and writers over us, that’s when we decided to do something. But we were so insecure and so intimidated about trying out as writers that we asked a few guys to teach a writing course for women.

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Julia Baird became deputy editor of Newsweek in 2009.

Times changed, of course. Next Thursday, Julia Baird, former deputy editor of Newsweek, will be at the Wheeler Centre to talk about media and politics in America, with Richard Fidler, Siobhan Heanue and chair Sophie Black.

Slush Pile Don'ts

Are you polishing off a story, ready to send out to magazines and journals? Well, if you are, take a look at this Indiana Review article – which has been doing the rounds of the local literary internet this week – first. Does it fit one of the three categories that make it unlikely to get past the first hurdle?

They are: ‘The Sad Garage Sale’ (Carver already did this one, better than you’re likely to), stories of epiphanies around a sick bed, and ‘Scholars Misbehaving’ (unless you’re Michael Chabon writing The Wonder Boys).

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14 September 2012

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The words ‘psychopath’ and ‘psychopathy’ have a chequered history in psychiatry. Widely used in the mid-20th century, they’ve become more contested in recent decades as the psychiatric community tries to define a psychopath with scientific rigour. Deborah Cameron, a Scottish feminist linguist, wrote in 1987 that the word ‘psychopathy’ has become an “infinitely elastic, catch-all category”. An article by R. Blackburn the following year in the British Journal of Psychiatry argued that the word was more of a moral judgment than a scientific category.

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Around that time, a psychiatrist called Robert Hare developed a checklist to determine whether or not someone was a psychopath. That checklist became the basis for Welsh journalist Jon Ronson’s investigation of psychopathy, The Psychopath Test (previously mentioned here, here and here).

These days, psychopathy is back in vogue, largely thanks to Ronson. His research found that psychopaths, as defined by the Hare checklist, make up one per cent of the general population – but that there are four times that number at the highest levels of business and politics. (To see the video of Ronson’s recent Wheeler Centre appearance, click on the image below.)

It’s an assessment that Conrad Black, a Canadian former media baron and owner of The Age, might well agree with. Just today, in an article in the Business section of the Huffington Post, Black has published a damning assessment of Rupert Murdoch in which he labels his nemesis a psychopath: “My admiration for his boldness and acumen and our previous 25 years of more than civil relations make it unpleasant, despite his unspeakable assault on me, to have to conclude that he is, in my personal belief, a psychopath. I think behind his nondescript personality lurks a repressed, destructive malice. His is, and has been proved to be, in some measure, a criminal organization.” Of course, Black’s diagnosis is highly unreliable: he’s now serving time in the US for white collar crimes after long having been the subject of News Limited newspaper opprobrium.

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(Click to watch video.)

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25 October 2011

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In a feature published in today’s Age, US psychologist Christopher Ryan likens monogamy to vegetarianism, saying a monogamous lifestyle is possible but not necessarily what human beings are predisposed to adhering to.

Christopher Ryan is the co-author – with his wife, psychiatrist Cacilda Jetha – of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. He’ll appear at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday, delivering this week’s Lunchbox/Soapbox on the topic of ‘Sexual Vegetarianism’.

In this video/podcast of a previous Lunchbox/Soapbox on the same theme, writer/comedian Sue-Ann Post argues the case against monogamy.

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03 October 2011

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This blog post by Catherine Deveny was originally published on her own blog under the title, ‘Unhappy? Because We Are Not Spending? Bullshit.’

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You’ll see them in shopping centres every weekend seeking sedation: people trying to buy their next high.

Reduce greed. There’s your answer. Thank you and good night.

Nothing new, nothing fancy, nothing even slightly original. Here’s a tip to increase your happiness. Just stop trying to fill that gaping hole inside yourself with more stuff. Or shelving for the stuff. Or a bigger house for the shelving. It doesn’t work. It just makes the hole bigger. Everything won’t be fine if you just get new light fittings, replace the curtains or buy a new mobile phone. No one needs 12 doona covers. Everything will be fine if you take a big breath and stop buying crap you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t like.

Does anyone else want to slap half the people around you and say “You’d have more peace if you just spent less money”? People complain about how hard they work, how little money they have and how their relationship is at breaking point. And then what do they do? Exercise? Meditate? Work less? Nope. They buy themselves a cappuccino machine they’ll only use twice, an exercise bike that will be the most expensive clothes hanger they have ever owned, shoes they’ll never wear and then sign up for cable TV. And then put their hand up for more overtime.

Next time you find yourself itching for some retail therapy, think about what would really turn off that desire button inside you, not just put it on snooze. Take a look at your wardrobe overflowing with clothes you don’t wear, your shed chockers with tools you don’t use or that entertainment unit groaning under the weight of the hundreds of dollars of DVDs and CDs that you’ve never played. Remember how excited you were and how you truly believed, deep down in the soul of your being, that each purchase would bring you happiness. How it would soothe those wounds of feeling unloved, unappreciated and unhappy. How you had to have it. The thrill of the purchase,

the excitement of the homecoming and then the punch in the stomach when your credit card bill arrived.

Middle-class whingers complaining about how hard they are struggling need a good slap. They are offensive to true battlers out there who stock up on their brand of margarine when it’s on special and don’t buy new socks but mend the ones they have.

Someone handed me $300 cash the other day. It felt like a million dollars. It felt like far more money than 10 times as much sitting in my bank account. Because I could see it, feel it, smell it. These days money is invisible. People don’t actually know how much things cost them. If people had to slave away and earn the cash before they could acquire the things they wanted, given the choice and knowing how much sweat it’d taken, they’d go for the cash. The invisible money culture is not only ravaging the environment, it’s corroding lives and destroying happiness. Putting it on the credit card or taking money out of the mortgage? It’s all invisible money.

I call it the Veruca Salt syndrome. I want it and I want it NOW. People have to have the big house, the new car, the new kitchen, the new clothes NOW. Once upon a time people saved, they waited, they went without. Same happy. Some say more happy.

The symptoms of affluenza, luxury fever and conspicuous consumption can all be alleviated by the simple mantra “I have enough”. The worried-well need less, not more. The stressed-out full-timers who live on Mortgagee Mountain, between Default District and Foreclosure Falls, dig themselves in deeper as they attempt to find peace in the purchase of plasma TVs so each member of the family can watch Big Brother in their own room of the McMansion.

People are in debt up to their eyebrows and they tell me it’s good for the economy. But it’s destroying our spiritual economy. Is this the spiritual recession we had to have? Kids want to lie on the grass watching the clouds roll by with chilled-out parents. Not be dragged through shopping centres by harassed mums and dads trying to anaesthetise their existential pain by purchasing more stuff to plug in and more stuff to store.

On any perfect 25-degree windless Sunday you will find Chadstone, Northland, DFO and all those soul-destroying cathedrals of emptiness chockers with people attempting to sedate. Take two transactions and call me in the morning. They’d be better off spending a few hours sitting in a church. And that’s coming from an atheist. Greed and consumption addict people and they spend weekends trawling shopping centres chasing the next hit.

Happy is the man who is content with what he has. And the woman who needs only one pair of good shoes and a library card. Maybe I should follow the advice of the graffiti I read last week: SHUT UP AND SHOP.

Catherine Deveny appears at the Wheeler Centre tonight as part of a panel discussion on happiness.

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28 September 2011

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By Mark Mordue

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The Rolling Stones song ‘Emotional Rescue’ is a seduction song thinly veiled in romance. The urgency and strut that it exudes, Mick Jagger’s startling use of falsetto – it’s all about getting a woman to leave her husband and join him in bed.

By surrendering to her desires and to his, the singer will come to that woman’s emotional rescue. It’s likely to be a very temporary liberation, however. As Jagger hints early in the song, “Don’t you know promises were never meant to keep.”

There are often gaps between what we say and what we mean, of course. Some conscious, others subconscious. Our listening can involve similar arts of opportunity and self-deception. There are messages we don’t want to receive. Others we need to have, whether they are present in what someone says or does – or not.

Our emotions are rarely singular, and pass over us like one cloud hiding another and perhaps another again. The argument would be we should use our mind to read that weather more clearly, to make sense of those feelings that impel us, and then to see ourselves and perhaps act more wisely. Or to surrender – because we want to surrender – to something that at first glance is irrational, wild, destructive or thrilling, as the case may be. To be rescued, as it were, from the rational world that dulls us and even imprisons us.

Art is a kind of tarot for our feelings, a set of stories and symbols through which we can see ourselves. In Shakespeare’s time the connection was more ordered and universally understood, a universe of bodily humors from which character and all human destiny stemmed.

Though we lack such an elaborate and living map of the self today, I find I am still able to read another map, a map that is not fixed but somehow flowing, visible within the arts available to me. And that through these encounters I can examine what my feelings are – and even reinvigorate them by listening to music or reading a book when modern life seems to extinguish those sparks.

In a recent interview, Laura Marling – the young English singer most often compared to Joni Mitchell – declared herself to be an anti-romantic rationalist, to be all about logic over feelings. Marling is a woman barely 21 years old who’s produced a supreme second album entitled A Creature I Don’t Know (oh the irony). It’s hard to recall a record of such up-tempo and annihilating dispensations emerging since Chrissie Hynde appeared on the scene with The Pretenders some 30 years ago. Though arising out of an English folk-pop background, Marling’s voice also echoes the smoky, side-on snarl of Hynde at her best. Her lyrics are not only literary, they venture into a dark yet ultimately optimistic aloneness that seems rare: neither soporifically happy, nor darkly cliched. She works towards stripping away illusions about romance while sustaining a deep poetry and sense of mystery to her lyrics.

At the same time I started listening to her new record and absorbing her world-view, I found myself hurled backwards – somewhat nostalgically – by the documentary Autoluminescent. A depiction of the life and loss of former Birthday Party guitarist, Rowland S. Howard, Autoluminescent takes some of its hard-edge romance from the influence of 19th century French poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, both of whom Howard echoed in his looks, lyrics and ambience.

In the documentary, Howard talks about writing his first important song, ‘Shivers’, when he was only 16. He had noticed his schoolmates indulging in their emotions to hysterical extremes. It was all too much. Thus the withering lines of a jilted young man who might well be Howard himself: “’I’ve been contemplating suicide/but it’s really not my style.”

Howard could look back at the song and laugh at his own bravado, and his insight into excess emotion. “Says me”, he observes wryly in the documentary, “a guy who has always had a glass heart on his sleeve.”

Howard died last year of liver failure brought on by complications wrought by hepatitis C, contracted from intravenous drug use as a young man. Ultimately Autoluminescent is about promise unfulfilled, but it’s also about the great things Howard gave us as a musician and songwriter. It’s a legacy at once genuinely tragic and yet luminous, leaving you with a far-from-singular feeling – one that might best be described as ecstatic grieving.

A great artistic encounter brings something truthful to how we feel about ourselves and see the world. It’s a mysterious tension – an overlapping, contradictory richness – that somehow makes sense without ever reducing things to an easy answer or summary. It may be this is the only emotional rescue we can ever count on. In the meantime, we continue to seek our freedoms in the strangest ways – as often as not in spite of ourselves – jolted back into awareness by a wave of music, a line of poetry, a painting, a song … then continuing on our way.

Mark Mordue is the 2010 Pascall Prize Australian Critic of the Year. He is currently working on a biography of Nick Cave.

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27 September 2011

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No longer is alarmism about modern-day psychiatry the preserve of conspiracy theorists and Scientologists. That a forthcoming appearance at the Wheeler Centre by Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test, has sold out is an indication of increasing interest in mental illnesses and the psychoactive pharmaceuticals prescribed to treat them.

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A recent two-part essay in the New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell, ‘The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?’, raises alarming questions about the state of modern psychiatry and of the role pharmaceutical companies are playing in the development of widely-accepted treatments. Angell writes that a major 2001-2003 survey conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health in the US found that almost half the adult population fit the criteria for having suffered a mental illness at some point of their lives. One in ten 10-year-old boys in the US now take stimulants to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and there are half a million children in the US on antipsychotic drugs.

While psychoactive drugs undoubtedly have a beneficial effect for many sufferers of mental illness, perhaps the saddest aspect of current US psychiatry is, according to Angell, its links to poverty. “As low-income families experience growing economic hardship, many are finding that applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments on the basis of mental disability is the only way to survive. It is more generous than welfare, and it virtually ensures that the family will also qualify for Medicaid.” To qualify for SSI, applicants are generally required to be taking psychoactive drugs. The result? A study found that “children from low-income families are four times as likely as privately insured children to receive antipsychotic medicines.”

On Monday, 26 September, the Wheeler Centre will be hosting Sad, the first of three events in the Sad/Angry/Happy series on the emotions. For this event, chair Noni Hazlehurst will be joined by politician Andrew Robb, comedian Ben Pobjie and Dr Nicole Highet of beyondblue.

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16 September 2011

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(Click to watch video.)

Emma Forrest’s career as a writer almost predates her adolescence. She’s toured with pop bands, written a column in the Times, published several books including three novels, and dated stars of stage and screen. She’s also struggled with debilitating mental illness. This is how she described her descent into madness in a 2008 Guardian article advising sympathy for Britney Spears:

“I was 22 in 2000, living in New York on contract to this newspaper and about to have my first book hit the shelves … Beginning as writer’s block, [the psychosis] evolved into a profound self-loathing made visible around my studio apartment by a knee-deep mess of newspapers, magazines, books, clothes … It starts to be a psychotic break when one moves from depression to being afraid of opening the refrigerator because the monster that yells, ‘Zool!’ at Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters might be there. But I didn’t see how crazy that was … By the end of 2000, I was self mutilating a few times a week and having four scaldingly hot baths a day, trying to feel something and trying to make the hours pass, like Britney, driving in circles, padding out her days.”

After a serious suicide attempt, Forrest ended up in hospital, where her illness stabilised. Her path back to wellness began following her return to New York, when she began seeing her psychiatrist, whom she refers to as Dr R. In her memoir of the time, Your Voice in My Head, Dr R looms as a large, beneficent presence. In her words, he helped Forrest “fall out of love with madness”. In her memoir, Forrest writes about Dr R’s unexpected death, and having to learn to be happy on her own. Nowadays, Forrest is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.

Here’s Emma Forrest on Radio National’s Book Show, and here’s a review of Your Voice in My Head in the Guardian and another in The Awl.

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09 June 2011

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PET image of a transaxial slice of the brain of a 56 year old male patient via WikiCommons

A new book claims that, while one in 100 people in the general population are psychopaths, in the boardroom the ratio is four times higher (go to 18m40s). In The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, calls psychopathy “the madness that makes the world go round”. In a Youtube video to promote the book he adds, “there’s a preponderance of psychopaths – people with a complete lack of human empathy – at the heart of the political and business elites”. Here’s a review and here’s an interview.

Jon Ronson became interested in psychopathy when he was contacted by a patient of a hospital for the mentally ill he calls ‘Tony’. Tony convinced Ronson he had faked his mental illness to avoid a prison term for a crime he’d been charged with. When Ronson spoke to hospital authorities about the case, they agreed that Tony had faked his mental illness, but that the fact that he’d faked a mental illness to escape criminal conviction was a sign that Tony was a psychopath.

The author uses Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist to conclude that corporate figures such as ‘Chainsaw Al’ Dunlap might just qualify. The list includes: glibness/superficial charm; a grandiose sense of self-worth; pathological lying; cunning/manipulative behaviour; lack of remorse or guilt; short-lived and egocentric emotion; callousness/lack of empathy; failure to accept responsibility for actions; susceptibility to boredom; poor behavioral control; and lack of realistic long-term goals (full list here).

Literature has a long and proud history of psychopaths, arguably beginning with the Arabian Nights, in which Scheherazade staves off the murderous impulses of a psychopathic king with the power of storytelling. Film has made much mileage of psychopaths, too, particularly Stanley Kubrick. But among psychologists, the word ‘psychopath’ itself is controversial, particularly its classification, alongside sociopathy, as a subset of antisocial personality disorder.

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26 May 2011

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