Wednesday 12 January 2011

Chinese Mother: Psychology is Modern Shamanism

    A couple of days ago there was a widely linked article in the WSJ called "Chinese Mother" ( ).  The basic premise of the article is that Western mothers are too soft and don't push their children enough and Chinese mothers are like a blacksmith's hammer cruelly pounding there children until they become brilliant swords of achievement (or something equally pathetic).

    I'm not going to deal with the premise though; it's the subtext that I'm interested in. The subtext is: 'Western people develop psychological problems because their parents make them weak, self indulgent quitters.'  I've seen lots of counterpoints who's subtext is something like 'Chinese parents turn their children into soulless robots who can only take orders'.  The really interesting thing about both of these ideas is that they tacitly accept the current fashions of Western psychology as if they were scientifically proven facts.  You may well expect that from Western responses but in the original piece she frames Chinese Mothers as the antidote to the 'problems' identified by Western psychological ideas.

    I'm going to digress for a minute but if you do nothing else make sure you read  "The Americanization of Mental Illness" in the New York Times ( ).

    Let me introduce an imaginary a world in which the internal combustion engine evolved on it's own and everyone in this world is given an engine when they're born, sort of like a puppy, and the engine has to develop and eventually reach a mature state. They keep the engine through their life and use it to assist with physical work.  These engines are completely sealed  (a la Honda) and cannot be opened or disassembled without destroying them.  The engines accept a few limited inputs (petroleum products, coolant and accelerator signals).  They output power and waste (heated coolant and exhaust).  Virtually all work is done by the engines and no one can conceive of life without them.
    People in this imaginary world are naturally very curious about engines but they basically know nothing about them. They cannot create an engine from first principles.  They have invested huge efforts in studying engines but this 'study' basically amounts to looking at engines while they're working and measuring which parts get hot.  The engines display  remarkably diverse behaviour.  They are very sensitive to the quality of the petroleum products the user provides.  Some substitutes have been found to work but others will kill the engine.  Scientists studying engines have found that chemicals can be added to the fuel to generate different performance characteristics.  It's not known whether these additives have a long term impact on the engine.  Temperature, humidity, age, etc; many other variables also subtly affect the engines.
    Alongside the scientists, a separate field of engine philosophy has grown up.  These people develop complex theories about engine performance and how it can be influenced.  Their theories are never tested (it would be unethical to destroy an engine to test a theory).  Regardless, engine philosophies are extremely popular and wield a huge influence over people's perception of how engines should be used to best effect.  Finally there is a third group - the practical philosophers.  They are engine philosophers who also study all of the components and inputs of engines.  They are called upon to intervene when an engine is not performing as expected.  They use various mechanical devices and chemical cocktails depending on which school of philosophy they belong to.  No one knows if these 'treatments' actually work but many people 'feel' like they do and that seems to be good enough.

    Back to reality, clearly my imaginary world is ridiculous.  Right?  They sound like cargo cult tribes making earphones out of coconuts and waiting for wartime planes to return.  And what does this have to do with the 'Chinese Mother' nonsense anyway?  Well the truth is that the engine people are us and this is how our culture deals with the brain.

    How much to we know about the brain?  Nothing.  Seriously - NOTHING!  The brain is, in many ways, the last great mystery of the natural world.  I don't want to demean the good work that scientists are doing with fMRIs of the brain, but they are a long way from explaining the mechanics of the brain and do not deserve sensational headlines.  If the path from superstitious farmers to an explanation of brain phenomena from first principles is a mile - we've gone about 100 feet.  Into that vacuum of understanding we have pushed a huge volume of nonsense.  The nonsense varies widely in quality from laughably stupid 'ghost in the machine' stuff to the very sophisticated but utterly meaningless 'mental illnesses' of modern psychology.

     To understand our progress in brain science let's consider a steam engine in our imaginary world.  People have been tinkering with the idea of steam power since ancient Greece. The first workable steam engine appeared in 1712.  In a world of natural 'engines' such machines would seem rudimentary and laughable.  Compared to the high powered and perfectly working natural engines they would be.  Many people would doubt that 'evolved' engines could possibly work on the same principles.  Perhaps they would gain acceptance because you could create new ones as needed.  Given time, steam engines could become increasingly sophisticated and perhaps eventually reach (or even surpass) the effectiveness of natural engines.  I'd like to think that this is where we are now in our understanding of the brain.  Modern computers are the 'steam age' of brain science.  Compared to the brain the are incredibly inflexible and crude.  Yet we have found them to be immensely useful and they have clearly changed our world.

     So, if our brain science is in the steam age, at least scientists are studying something real.  If you lived in a pre-Enlightenment tribe/village/etc. someone in the tribe was designated as the shaman (or whatever you called it).  They were essentially selected at random and if you were lucky they had some knowledge about various plants that could be used if someone displayed a certain symptom.  They also had a fancy story about to explain what they were doing and why it worked.  Sometimes their stuff worked, sometimes it killed the patient but they basically knew nothing.  The function of the shaman was to provide you with a reason to believe you would get better.  That works surprisingly well a lot of time, it's called the placebo effect.

    The problem with psychology and psychiatry is that it's still like that.  There's a huge psycho-pharma industry geared up to give you a reason to believe you should feel better and charge you handsomely for the privilege.   They're basically modern shamans!  There is no detailed explanation for the effect of SRI anti-depressants.  They are stuffing the world's population full of chemicals whose effect cannot be adequately explained.  The use of the terms 'mental health' and 'mental illness' are basically ridiculous.  The modern psycho-pharma practitioner has no better basis to label some symptom a 'mental illness' than a shaman had to explain why a tribe member was sick.  They fundamentally DO NOT KNOW, they're just guessing.

    Now, you may be about to rebuke me with various double blind, statistically valid and incredibly sophisticated studies that have been done on psycho-pharma drugs and mental illnesses.  Those things are great but what are they really measuring?  They're measuring deeply subjective experiences and outcomes as reported by human beings.  These experiences and outcomes are very strongly shaped by the culture and expectations of the participants.  They do not study of the actual physical effects of the compounds, it's ALL subjective.  It may be sophisticated but it's not science.  Good science is not subjective.  Good science relies on verifiable and repeatable outcomes.  Good science says 'we don't know' very clearly when that's the truth.  No one in psycho-pharma ever says 'we don't know'.

    It's kind of depressing, or maybe that's meaningless term. All I can say is be very careful about anyone who tries to sell you an explanation for how the brain works and remember that the placebo effect is a powerful force.

    As far as parenting and being a Chinese Mother, I don't have any advice for you but I can promise you that simplistic explanation for complex outcomes (like the success or happiness of your kids) are invariably wrong.  I guess you'll just have to do what seems best to you; know that your culture will have a huge effect that you can't really control; and trust your kids will probably turn out a little weird and mostly OK. As far as I can tell most people do.

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