Rethinking Psychology

How to shed mental health labels and create personal meaning

Who Stole Your Brain?

When environmental factors conspire to dumb you down

Billions of infants are born into a social class, ethnic group, religious group, family of origin or other set of circumstances in which their native intelligence either counts for little or is held as a negative.

Only a few theories of personality, primarily those influenced by Marxist economic ideas, have taken into account the challenges to personality development and expression created by these environmental circumstances. Yet they are hugely significant. If you have a good brain and the world you grow up in demands that you shut it down, you are bound to suffer.

Imagine the following sort of day in the life of a young girl with lots of native intelligence. Her household is in chaos, the kind of chaos that poverty, acrimony, addictions, and unfulfilled lives produce. Surrounded by threats, impulsivity, and zero tolerance for free thought, she somehow manages to get to school—and into her next anti-thinking environment.

At school more chaos obtains and, despite what one might presume to be its mandate; that school is designed to advocate for thinking, she is confronted by a shrink-wrapped, fact-based, topic-based and test-driven curriculum that no adult with the freedom to leave would tolerate for an instant. 

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After school, she goes off to parochial instruction and gets a narrow religious education that demands obedience and allegiance and more thoughtlessness. Her evening involves her in more chaos and to escape it she shuts her door, if she is lucky enough to have a room and a door, and finds some stress relief and some self-soothing by watching hours of ready-made, low-level television programming that further numbs her and dumbs her down. Finally she sleeps, only to awaken to another day just like this one.

What will happen to her brain potential in these circumstances? We can imagine. Likely the best that she can do is bury herself in her books and become a good student, a grade seeker, a dreamer, or a mini-expert in some niche area of thought like spelling or puzzle solving, all of which is a far cry from becoming the deep, free satisfied thinker she might have become in other circumstances.

That’s probably the best-case scenario. More likely she will not think much, even though she has the ability to think, and when confronted by tasks that require her to think she will find herself too anxious and too unprepared to meet the rigors of thinking. As a result she will fail, disappoint herself, and begin to form an identity that includes a huge doubt about whether she is as smart as she once thought she was.

This child is bound to grow sad, bound to act out or to sabotage herself, bound to show the “symptoms” of one “mental disorder” or another, from “childhood depression” to “attention deficit disorder” to “obsessive-compulsive disorder.” We may see her try to gain some control of her life through anorexia, we may see her run away, get pregnant early, marry early, try college and drop out, and throughout these years maintain a love-hate relationship with thinking, at once craving it and avoiding it.   

A child can’t meet these challenges herself. No six-year-old or nine-year-old or eleven-year-old can change this situation for herself, even if in a corner of awareness she knows that something is seriously wrong, even if she recognizes that there is a better way just out of reach, and even if she tries to stubbornly ignore her environment and entertain dreams and goals for her future.  

These negative outcomes are lamentable but they are also natural. They are exactly what you would expect to see if at every turn you prevented a child from thinking freely and deeply. If you put a good brain in a brain-unfriendly environment it should not surprise you to see that brain get sad (a state that will eventually get labeled “chronic depression”), respond impulsively and carelessly rather than thoughtfully, doubt its abilities and its options, and choose a station in life a notch or two below the one it might otherwise have chosen.

Let’s follow this child and give her a new chance and a new lease on life; say when she is twenty-seven, has had to survive the consequences of these environmental challenges and her own spotty past, and comes into contact with a psychology like natural psychology that alerts her to the fact that the place she has arrived at is rather to be expected.

The language of natural psychology; where we talk about original personality, formed personality and available personality, about meaning investments and meaning opportunities, about the unfortunate but completely normal (as opposed to “abnormal” or “disordered”) consequences of environmental challenges, and about distress relief rather than the “diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders,” can help her think about what has transpired and what is now required of her if she is to reduce her distress and right her ship.

In the language of natural psychology, she has an original personality that came with a good brain, a desire to think, and a propensity to think; a formed personality that has had to deal with all the impediments to thinking put in her way and which has dealt with those impediments relatively unsuccessfully; and considerable available personality that possesses an intuitive memory of her original personality and enough awareness of the contours of her formed personality to make real, significant changes.

She can use her available personality to learn how to tolerate the anxiety that now accompanies her efforts at thinking; she can seize “thinking” as a meaning opportunity and make conscious meaning investments in some “thinking domain,” whether it is a profession that she thought was out of her reach or a body of knowledge that she would love to study but didn’t dare begin for fear of failing herself again. These are the sorts of efforts and changes that she can commence to make.

In addition to learning to deal with the deficits that are part of her formed personality, she must also learn to deal with those environmental factors that have not gone away. If she goes back to spend a day with her family she will again have to deal with that anti-thinking environment. If she has not left her church, she will have to deal with that anti-thinking environment. If her friends sneer at thinking, she will have to deal with them. If she turns on the television to relax, she will have to deal with the anti-thinking programming filling every channel. That she heroically works on herself doesn’t prevent environmental factors from continuing their mischief and mayhem.

It is natural and predictable that our environment may pressure us to not think. This pressure will produce pain as we intuit that we are missing out on a native opportunity and will negatively affect our personality, producing everything from “math anxiety” to “depression.” If you were born to think and got pushed off that path, now is the time to make use of your available personality to craft a new, friendlier relationship with your brain.

**

Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, bestselling author of 40 books, and widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach. His latest book is Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning (New World Library, February, 2012) and is available here. Dr. Maisel is the founder of natural psychology, the new psychology of meaning. Please visit Dr. Maisel at http://www.ericmaisel.com or contact him at ericmaisel@hotmail.com. You can learn more about natural psychology at http://www.infinitemeaningclass.com.

Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of forty books, among them Rethinking Depression.

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