Thursday, January 29, 2009

Extreme Psychology - Therapy on the Front Lines of Human Nature


There are a few brave and compassionate therapists who specialize in disaster situations - the actual front line of trauma work. Not only is the work itself challenging, but their clients can sometimes be difficult to feel compassion for - war criminals, for example.
Extreme Psychology

For a small band of shrinks, intervening in catastrophic situations is an everyday event. But their experience at the edge has deep consequences for us all: It is altering our understanding of the true nature of human nature.

By: Joann Ellison Rodgers

Those who tend to the human psyche are experts in our internal dramas, which are generally invisible to the naked eye. They give us tools to subdue our anxieties, lift plummeting moods and mop up our quotidian emotional messes.

A rare few populate therapeutic realms inhabited exclusively by men and women who are thrust against the very limits of human adaptability. These professionals deal with people whose dramas are enough to make front-page news.

Call them extreme psychologists. Psychology Today tracked down five whose work takes them into often-uncharted depths of human nature. Most are rewriting the textbook of human behavior as they go.

One examines American soldiers who acted unspeakably in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Another helps cult members break free. Yet another probes the memories of people whose experience has been almost literally out of this world. Still another has found the secret that allows victims of terrorism and catastrophes to emerge stronger than ever. And one plucks couples from the abyss of marital dissolution. By working at the margins of human experience, they illuminate the most basic psychological needs of us all.

Out of This World but Not Out of Their Minds

Susan Clancy's close encounters with the third kind began a decade ago, by proxy. A psychology fellow at Harvard, she was searching to find a verifiable way to study the conditions under which people do—or do not—create fake memories. What she found was how far people go to make sense of experience.

In 1996, she had begun work with women who had repressed and "recovered" vivid memories of sexual abuse, applying well-known tests designed to show if some were more prone to re-create memories. She tested subjects and control groups who said they were either never sexually abused or had never forgotten their abuse. All were asked to study, memorize and then recite back a list of semantically related words, such as those having to do with the word sweet. On the list were candy, sugar, cookie and brownie, for example, but never actually the word sweet.

Everybody had a tendency to think that the "nonpresent critical word"—sweet—was on the list. "But the women who claimed to have recovered memories of sex abuse were significantly more likely than the control groups to be very, very confident that the critical word sweet was on that list," Clancy found. "The bottom line is that they created a false memory and not only believed it, but were very confident in their belief." The research set off a firestorm. "All I said was that if women were more prone to create false memories in the lab, it was also a possibility they had outside the lab, too. I was accused of protecting pedophiles."

Ultimately, there was no workable way to corroborate the abuse stories. She needed "a better, safer 'mouse'" to study in the lab. Clancy turned to alien abductees. "Here were intelligent, high-functioning, nonreligious people, free of brain damage or major trauma, yet with vivid memories of something that to a high degree of certainty did not happen."

The same tests yielded the same results. The only big difference between abductees who created false memories in hypnosis, those who said they were abducted but had no memory of it, and a control group who had never thought they were abducted was that the false-memory group scored higher in fantasy proneness. The "recovered-memory" abductees overall were far more likely to remember sweet with complete certainty and to believe false memories that were suggested or imagined in detail with the help of testers.

Few abductees remembered the abduction itself. Most just believed it on the basis of symptoms, Clancy says. "They would say 'I woke up and couldn't move for 30 seconds,' or they discovered a strange pattern of moles on their skin. Then they would conclude that they 'feel different now.'" But instead of telling themselves they had a bad dream, a physical ailment, sleep problems or just a coincidental set of symptoms, they attributed the phenomena to an abduction.

Initially, the abductees sought therapy for the psychological and physical trauma they "experienced." But once past the pain and terror, Clancy found, "they felt special, that something chose them and they were important, and they felt that scientists 'don't know everything.'"

False as the abductions may be, they play a real role in the psychological lives of those who believe in them. Further, they expose a universal need. "It's human for people to seek psychological explanations for why they feel alone, sad, lost or put down," Clancy observes. "We don't all choose alien abductions that focus on trauma, anal probes and all the creepy stuff, but we all seek some kind of explanation for what we experience. Being abducted is culturally available; aliens are all over the media. My child at age two could identify an alien on TV."

Clancy recognized in abductees the same need you and I have to believe in something bigger than ourselves. "They want meaning. And don't we all? Their experience makes them human, not weird." Therapists called upon to treat anyone for postabduction trauma would do well to respect that, she notes. Then abductees can be helped to understand themselves and their lives, even if the memory of what happened to them isn't valid.

The Evil Within—and Without

In charge of the night shift in a part of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison known as the "hard site," Ivan "Chip" Frederick could have stopped the abuse that famous night in 2003, he later admitted. But the 38-year-old former staff sergeant, whose 12-year sentence is on appeal, took part instead, forcing prisoners to masturbate and punching one man so hard he needed medical help. He also hooked wires to the hands of a detainee, who was told he would be electrocuted if he fell off a box.

Philip Zimbardo was called to consult on Frederick's defense. "Most of us have a self-serving illusion," says the Stanford University psychologist, whose 1971 landmark study of prison society famously demonstrated the power of circumstance to hijack morality. "We say we'd be good guards or heroic prisoners, that we can't imagine how guards at Abu Ghraib did this." But he can.

Zimbardo grew up in the South Bronx—"a skinny, sickly kid with a funny, big nose, picked on by other kids." Survival meant using his brains to learn the "psychology of street smarts," becoming an "intuitive personality theorist who sized up other kids very fast to figure out who was a friend and who was dangerous." That led to "understanding the dynamics of power, which kid had it and how to make it work for me and not against me."

With a Ph.D. in psychology from Yale, and his mean-streets training, Zimbardo found himself exploring how ordinarily decent people could do evil. "This was not a philosophical question for me," he says of the experiment in which he put college students into a prisonlike setting, some as guards, some as inmates. He watched as shifts in power and circumstances messed with personal identities, distorting and overwhelming deeply held values and moral codes.

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