The Fallible Mind

Emotion, perception, and other tricks of the brain

Take Home Lessons, Courtesy of Charlie Sheen

Enough coke to kill two-and-a-half men.

Deluded king of self-gratification, took enough coke to kill two-and-a-half men.

Deluded king of self-gratification, took enough coke to kill two-and-a-half men.

Voltaire famously said, "Everyone complains about his memory. No one complains about his judgment."

Which brings me to Charlie Sheen.

Half the planet is rapt with his antics, but I don't want to rubberneck at the spectacle or be a schoolmarm scold. Rather, I pose a question: what takeaway lessons from Sheen's public nosedive might we apply to our own lives? "The Fallible Mind" after all ponders the fallibility and frailties of human thinking, so what cautionary tales can we take from these ashes?

1. Thinking is easily impaired. When the brain is disordered by mental illness, physical disease, or external agents like alcohol and cocaine, judgment is often the first thing to go. Who among us has made his best decisions while bombed? In depression, a common malady, negative thoughts beset the individual, undermine self worth, and lead to conclusions that are at odds with objective facts. At the extreme, life is not worth living. We stop people from killing themselves and offer supportive therapy precisely because in time they will no longer think that way and will be glad to be alive. (Parenthetically, jumpers who survive suicide leaps say that the first thought after their hands leave the railing is what a stupid decision they made.)

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The chronic use of uppers like cocaine and amphetamine induce a mental state indistinguishable from paranoid schizophrenia. Individuals are delusional, out of touch with reality, suspicious that people are "out to get them " or are in some way critical. Crystal meth can permanently alter brain chemistry while it rots one's teeth. The nightmare for many abusers is that they never revert ("reconstitute") to their old way of thinking but are locked into their state of paranoia.

2. Ambivalence is a feature of impairment. Alcoholics and addicts are very aware of two parts of their mind fighting each other: they want to stop but, by definition, cannot. They're addicts, remember? It isn't about willpower. In Roman times the years an indentured slave had to serve was called the addictum; the person forced to carry it out was the addict. Addicts' behavior can go back and forth for years, and ambivalence that may sometimes let a close friend or trusted authority get through, telling him that his thinking is impaired (more effective than saying, "You're nuts!"). Sheen recently entered rehab for the third time in the past 12 months while during that same time he engaged in extreme substance abuse, destroyed property, spent tens of thousands on prostitutes, abused women, and ruined his marriage. That's certainly ambivalent, but he's probably unreachable because his rationalization is now so intense. He's "a rock star from another planet," too "big" for ordinary mortals to grasp. Tiger blood flows in his veins.

3. We are blind to impaired thinking. We will reflexively use any number of ego defense mechanisms  to delude ourselves that our behavior and thoughts are ok. Ego defenses are psychological strategies brought into play to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety, social sanctions, or to provide a refuge from a situation with which one cannot currently cope. Above all, they maintain one's self-image. Healthy persons use common defenses such as rationalization ("Here's why I did that"), justification ("I deserved it"), minimization ("I only stole ten dollars, I could have taken fifty"), projection ("It was all her fault"), or sublimation (instead of punching people, you break noses playing hockey). Ego defense becomes pathological when it leads to maladaptive behavior, as in Sheen currently presenting himself as superhero of the Id, the king of self-importance and self-gratification.

Charlie sheen and enablers

"You're the greatest," in both ears.

4. We often surround ourselves with enablers. Sheen's enablers have an inve$tment—literally—in keeping his bad behavior going. Schadenfreude means taking pleasure in others misfortunes, and we love it when someone's pants fall down. Sheen has been red meat for the media, who have responded with a feeding frenzy. But his predicament in reality is sad, tragic, and painful. The ending is not going to be pretty. And it is going to come eventually because audiences are fickle. They are going to tire of him and move on to the titillation of the next day.


5. We don't like to comment on impaired thinking, and others don't like to comment on ours. Note that no interviewer has told Sheen outright that he doesn't make any sense, that his judgments and decisions are highly inappropriate. Refusing to play the addict's game, calling him on the consequences of his self-destructive behavior, is tough love. Sheen won't listen to anyone now, unfortunately. His long-time publicist, Stan Rosenfield, who more than anyone might have broken through Sheen's elaborate defenses, resigned. His move speaks loudly. He seems to be the only person adult enough to not enable Sheen's behavior.Sheen's father recently spoke on Charlie's "most profound problems and addition."

So what about you? When things are falling apart, don't go on television. Don't broadcast from your home. Be quiet. Can you be humble and admit you might not always be right? If someone close challenges you, think about it instead of immediately arguing. It takes emotional intelligence to recognize when you are being defensive and to ask yourself why. Defenses are a normal part of human psychology. When you become familiar with your own habitual defenses you can then learn to short circuit knee-jerk responses (usually characterized as "mindless," as in the hothead who easily flies off the handle) and adjust the content of your thoughts.

I don't know about you, but I'll take serenity over chaos any day.

Charlie Sheen, train wreck

Will the public tire before the train wreck happens?

Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., is a neurologist best known for bringing synesthesia back to mainstream science. His latest book is Wednesday Is Indigo Blue.

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