The Long Reach of Childhood

How early experiences shape you forever

Therapy Thru the Magnifying Glass of Sherlock Holmes

CSI for the mind and psyche—part one

CSI, as any television viewer knows, is a popular form of a crime show based on forensic science. That science and its concepts and tools act as the “hero” of the show. “If it were not for forensic science” says the inspector, “the crime would have gone unsolved." Psychotherapy is not unlike forensic science in that its focus is on uncovering the clues that have not allowed you to live your potential, which is a crime. The focus would be on the unresolved issues of your childhood that have become the root of the unhappiness and/or problems of your adult years.

I was struck by this similarity while watching a recent television show on how the Sherlock Holmes stories affected modern forensic science. These stories introduced a new approach to solving a crime: an in-depth examination of evidence at the crime scene using an analysis of fingerprints, handwriting, footprints, documents and ciphers. I realized that some of these tools are also applicable to understanding the genesis of psychological “crimes.” Most important to psychological dynamics is a basic tenet of forensic science formulated by an early forensic scientist: the exchange principle which states that when two things come into contact with each other, each leave a trace on the other. Transferring this exchange principle to psychotherapy: whenever you come in contact with another, each of you leaves a “trace” on the other.

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A good example of this psychological exchange principle is the shift researchers have made in the field of infant research. Researchers now agree that the early development of temperament is the result of subtle interactions between the biology of infants and their caregivers. It is not nature versus nurture but nature and nurture interacting in reciprocal ways to evolve into specific patterns of existence. The manner in which an infant processes a sensation and/or an experience and responds will influence the adult’s reactions to the infant. This in turn initiates a new series of responses in the infant—each leaving a “trace” on the other. This exchange principal continues throughout one’s life.

The exchange principle, as well as Holmes’ focus on the crime scene acts as the model for understanding and examining the dynamics of what has happened and is still happening in your “space-betweens.” The space-between refers to the true reality that exists between you and another. It is the equivalent of a psychological “crime scene” in that it holds the verbal language, the body language, emotions, beliefs, echoes of childhood experiences and explicit and implicit knowledge that is in each of you. The sum total of these factors existing in each of you is the “thing” that each of you put into the interaction, including the wounds and distortions of your past. It is the source of the trace each of you leave behind.

The success Holmes’ achieved in solving a crime was due to his ability to analyze the physical evidence found at the crime scene. His success was equally due to his intuition that creatively expanded possibilities. An analogy to this in therapy is the difference between explicit knowing (evidence) and implicit knowing (intuition).

Let’s start with evidence using Holmes’ magnifying glass to look at explicit knowing and what I call the “DNA” of our psychological being. Explicit knowing or knowledge is what an individual can consciously recall and articulate; knowledge that is already known and rooted in language; knowledge that starts when language begins, usually around 18 months. That which is “unconscious” was once conscious, repressed but able to be brought to consciousness. At a forensic crime scene, the DNA refers to genetic information such as blood, or fingerprints. Psychological DNA is the remembered experiences of childhood such as being neglected, being accepted or rejected; a remembered experience that might have denied you the permission to live your potential.

For example, an important “DNA” is the goodness or poorness-of-fit between your inherent personality and your childhood environment. The phrase “goodness-of-fit was defined by researchers as the congruence—or lack of it—between the child’s temperament/ personality and the personalities, attitudes and parenting practices of the parents. A “goodness-of-fit” is seen as fostering healthy psychological and social development. The message parents can send when there is a “poorness-of-fit” is that there is something “wrong” with the child, rather than something “wrong” with the congruence between parent and child. Responding to this negative message, and in keeping with the exchange principle, the child reacts in ways that increase the poorness-of-fit. For example, a highly active, independent-minded and curious child who becomes slightly oppositional when overly strict parent react by lecturing or shaming the child, leads to increased negativity between parent and child which feeds into increased tension and withdrawing behaviors by the child. A psychological tool to tease out a poorness-of-fit is similar to tracing and analyzing footprints: how strong were the footprints you left as a very young child and do these footprints fade as you leave early childhood and move into more direct interactions with the adults in your life. The initial sense of fit that the child experiences with a parent is often perpetrated in school experiences, social groups and professional choices. In each case, be it the goodness or poorness of the fit, the “fit” is modified and codified by the exchange principal. A forensic tool a therapist can use is analysis of existing evidence: photographs, letters, comments of other family members and the validation of the individual’s memory.

Holmes was particularly effective in deciphering the secret messages hidden in seemingly innocent writings or ciphers. The psychological equivalent is using an insightful understanding of a child’s need to stay attached to their caregiver in order to discover the hidden messages the caregiver sent to the child to which the child adapted—at the expense of the child. An example is the mother whose “message” is one of caring, involvement and support—all messages that would lead to healthy development. But the son, now grown, seems to have an invisible wall that does not let any one get too close. The therapist, sensing some hidden message, begins to decipher the mother’s good messages as reported by the son, and discovers that the mother was intrusive, not involved. The son developed that invisible wall so as to not lose his attachment to his father whose message was “Don’t upset your mother.”

In other words a child must, in certain situations, put aside his or her own need(s) and adapt to the dysfunctional and/or demanding needs of a parent, other family members and/or the community. These childhood adaptations represent powerful patterns of behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that functioned originally to maintain continuing attachments to the adults in the world of that child as well as to a general sense of safety. Established in childhood, rooted in the concrete and literal thinking of a child and reinforced with the hidden power of implicit knowing, they become the later self-limiting or self-defeating behaviors of the adult.

As previously mentioned, Holmes’ success was equally due to his intuition that creatively expanded possibilities. Here is where implicit knowledge or knowing becomes an invaluable tool. Implicit knowing is non-conscious and non-verbal; involving circuits in the brain tied to experiences involving behaviors, emotions, and images. Unlike explicit knowledge, implicit knowledge is present at birth. Researchers in infant attachment issues further define implicit knowing as “relational knowing”—knowing how to be with other people. Relational knowing, when responding to the many hidden negative messages in childhood can be toxic and there’s where forensics again become Informative.

An important tool in forensic science is toxicology: the study of poisonous chemicals and drugs, and how a person or other living things reacts to them. Toxicology in psychotherapy is the study of how you know how to be, based on implicit communications that can be positive or extremely negative. You continue to anticipate and respond to others implicitly throughout your lifetime, continually forming implicit memories. A life can become shaped by reactivations of implicit memory, which lack a sense that something is being recalled. We act, feel and imagine without recognition of the power of past experiences to define a present reality. It is this belief of reality based on implicit knowing that is included in the “thing” we put in the “space-between.” The uncovering of the possible toxicity of your life experiences and limitations and how you may have implicitly reacted to them is a major focus of therapy, often requiring the intuitive assistance of a therapist.

CSI for the Mind and Psyche will continue in Part Two with: a further analysis of the comparisons between forensic science and psychotherapy; how therapy, using the magnifying glass of new insights, can change your “space-between”; the possible fall-out from those changes; and the potential of your using the recognition of the results of the CSI of your psychosocial history. The more you follow the footprints of the kind of reality you exist in your “space-betweens” the more the distortions in that reality can come to the surface and reveal the crime scene evidence of why you have a need not to get what you want. And the more you catch the distortions in your “space-betweens”—particularly the ones that are yours—the more power you have to solve the mystery of your past and create a different reality.

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever including strategies that can play an important part in the process of breaking free. Hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey. And hope your relationships exist within a positive exchange principle.

 

Ditta M. Oliker, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and the author of The Light Side of the Moon: Reclaiming Your Lost Potential.

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