Here’s a puzzle.
Conventionally, I would give you the puzzle first and the solution after, perhaps upside down at the bottom of the page to discourage peeking, but because I’m mean and grumpy I’m going to spoil your fun by giving you the solution first…heh.
No peeking at the puzzle!
The solution is hidden in a mildly amusing TED talk by Michael Shermer, Director of The Skeptics Society, a scientific and educational organization that applies scientific method to controversial ideas. In this 2006 talk, Michael Shermer gives examples of how we can easily disregard facts and come to believe things that are not true.
If you’re in a hurry, the part you want starts at 09:20, where you get to hear an infamous fragment of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Played backwards, this fragment appears to contain alternative lyrics with references to Satan.
But the tricky thing is, you can only hear these alternative lyrics if you know in advance what to listen for. Your brain has to be primed with the pattern, so that when you hear the backwards track you know what to recognise.
A pattern that’s primed in advance is known in CBT as a schema. This particular example is interesting because the advance priming comes only moments before recognition. In examples that come to light in therapy, the schema is usually formed some years previously, and it is not uncommon for it to have been formed decades previously.
Schemas are a normal part of mental function. When they occasionally go wrong, it’s because they are triggered inappropriately, even by random data. That’s what is happening in the song fragment. The data is essentially random, but the schema is triggered anyway. It’s the same mental mechanism as being able to see the shapes of constellations in the stars in the sky, which are in reality distributed randomly.
In 1937 a scientific study began at Harvard University, when a group of students (all men) agreed to take part in research that would last their entire lives. They submitted data about their physical and mental health, and many other things, at regular times over the years.
The study is described in detail in a long and fascinating article: What Makes Us Happy?
The huge quantity of data from measurements, questionnaires and interviews should, you might think, provide unique insight into the roots of health and happiness.
Hmmm…huge quantity…should provide…perhaps not — how would anyone go about understanding all that data and making sense of it? As the article explains:
The study began in the spirit of laying lives out on a microscope slide. But it turned out that the lives were too big, too weird, too full of subtleties and contradictions to fit any easy conception of “successful living.” …the enduring lessons would be paradoxical, not only on the substance of the men’s lives (the most inspiring triumphs were often studies in hardship) but also with respect to method: if it was to come to life, this cleaver-sharp science project would need the rounding influence of storytelling.
So from this huge mass of contradictory and baffling data, some stories emerge that seem significant.
Case No. 141
What happened to you? … You married, and took a posting overseas. You started smoking and drinking. … By your mid-30s, you had basically dropped out of sight. You stopped returning questionnaires. …the next thing the study heard of you, you had died of a sudden disease. Dr. Vaillant tracked down your therapist.
This guy who “dropped out of sight” and mysteriously died had a therapist? Let me guess…psychoanalyst? Behind the entire study there is a backdrop of psychodynamic theory.
Dr. Vaillant in the quote above is George Vaillant, the Harvard professor who until recently directed the project. He is somewhat younger than the project’s subjects. When he was ten his father, also George Vaillant, an anthropologist, shot himself at the family home. The boy had been the last person to see his father alive.
After all this time studying the lives of these older men, and with the benefit of all this data, the professor has some interesting ideas about how to live a long and happy life. There are three themes.
One theme has its roots in the messages of an idealized childhood — work hard at school, do your chores, play sport, be nice to your sister. Another theme has its roots in Freudian theory — that certain ways of responding to difficulty are “mature” (i.e. good) and others “immature” (i.e. bad). And the third is to do with being spiritual. Vaillant has had a long association with Alcoholics Anonymous, and his 2008 book, Spiritual Evolution, makes a scientific case for faith.
Suppose there had been no Harvard study and no research data. What ideas about how to live life would the professor have had then? Would they have been any different? How, in reality, did the data from the research study lead to these particular conclusions? It’s a puzzle. Go figure, as they say at Harvard.
The basis of CBT is that certain ways of thinking, particular to the individual patient, are harmful. CBT is successful because it identifies and changes the basis, the root cause, of a harmful way of thinking. (Trying to changing the resulting thoughts themselves would be stupid.)
So CBT goes to the root causes of thought patterns. Sometimes the root cause is a faulty schema — when pattern-recognition has gone wrong. Sometimes it’s a faulty assumption — when the patient has been led to believe something that is simply not true.
A very common faulty assumption is something along the lines that family life should be ideal, and that the rules for living a good life are known. On the basis of this kind of faulty assumption, a patient might perceive her real-life family as a terrible disaster because it is not ideal, and perceive herself as a terrible person for being unable to follow the rules.
In fact no family is ideal, and there are no rules. Families that appear ideal, and people who appear to know the rules and follow them, are faking it. But it’s easy for anyone to be deceived by hokum.
I have no idea (being short on book-learning) whether this very common kind of faulty assumption has an accepted scientific name. Privately, I call it ‘The Waltons effect’ after the TV series and film that depicted a cloyingly idealistic view of American family life from The Depression of the 1930s through World War II. I wonder if it’s coincidence that the puzzle of the Harvard Study is set in the same era.