Sunday, May 20, 2012

A "left-brain" take on misbehavior and discomfort

In the largely right-brain world of pop psychology, harking back at least to Freud, most afflictions would seem to have a socio-emotional source. In particular, misbehavior results from anger, poor emotional self-regulation, social insecurity, or a craving for attention. Distress when routines change results from fear of novelty and uncertainty. A desire for black and white categories results from a discomfort with ambiguity. The remedies, too, are social and emotion-based. If you’re upset about something, talk it out and process it emotionally.

Too often people ignore the possibility of cognitive causes and remedies. Misbehavior, for example, is often the result of cognitive disengagement, aka boredom. That’s why it occurs disproportionately when kids are waiting: waiting in line, waiting for a transition to end and a new activity to begin, or waiting for a long-winded classmate to finish talking.

Irritation when routines change, as I’ve noted earlier, can likewise have a cognitive source. Whenever someone puts your salt and baking powder containers in the wrong place, or changes the user interface on Windows or Blogger, you’re forced to relearn the boring, tedious stuff you’d earlier been able to automate, your mind no longer free to wander to more interesting places.

When you suddenly discover that a system of categories is more complicated than you thought it was, your heart may sink not because you’re emotionally uncomfortable with ambiguity, but because messy categories are much more of a cognitive pain in the neck to learn.

When you read the latest reports about how a nonhuman species supposedly communicates via nouns, verbs, and productive syntax, your failure to embrace these conclusions may not be because you feel threatened by the notion that humanity isn't as unique and privileged as you thought it was, but because of what you know about language, cultural transmission, and common misunderstandings about grammar.

Even when the cause is emotional the remedy may be cognitive. If I find myself brooding or unproductively anxious, I’ll seek out an intellectually engaging book or article to distract me, finding greater solace in Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Matt Ridley, or Nancy Minshew than I would hashing things out with a therapist.


FedUpMom said...

I've lived this problem, and quite recently.

Last year, my Younger Daughter was in first grade, and we got constant complaints about her behavior at school. The school sent us to all kinds of therapists in an effort to fix the problem (they were utterly useless.) The school even wanted us to get a 1:1 aide to follow YD around next year!

We switched schools, and YD hasn't had a behavior problem since. It turned out the problem was the teaching was so poor at the problem school that everything went over her head. She was full of anxiety because she had to fake knowing things that the teacher expected her to know. That's where the misbehavior came from.

No, it wasn't a deep emotional problem that she needed therapy for.

FedUpMom said...

As to hashing things out with a therapist, I've had depression on and off my whole life, and one of the things I've learned the hard way is that traditional therapy is useless for depression. It is absolutely not helpful to have a long talk about all the things in your life that might have contributed to your depression. It's much more helpful to change the subject -- take a walk or a bike ride, listen to music, have lunch with a friend.