Thursday, December 15, 2011
Friday, December 9, 2011
This blog post is an excerpt from a chapter in the anthology titled The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, published by BenBella Books.
Lisbeth Salander is a captivating protagonist. Her appearance and demeanor lead us-and the characters in her world-to make assumptions about her, to pigeonhole her as a goth, a slacker, a rebel. Over the course of the first novel and the trilogy, Stieg Larsson upends our analysis of her character as he reveals her inner life, her outward behavior, and the choices she's made. We can't help but admire her grit and persistence, her inner strength and commitment, her strong moral code, and her adherence to it.
There's a sense in which Salander is an action hero, even though the action isn't generally hitting, punching, or kicking (though she engages in some of those actions, too). Rather, she engages in hacking, researching, and other uses of her substantial intellect and emotional strengths. Her heroism is demonstrated mentally as well as physically. I'll go one step further: I think that Salander is a superhero. She has the three most important characteristics typical of a superhero: a mission, (super)powers, and a superheroidentity. The fact that she's not explicitly labeled as a superhero-and that we only subliminally come to understand her as one-adds to her appeal. Let's explore her mission in more detail.
Every superhero has a mission. Batman seeks to avenge his parents' deaths by "spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.". Spider-Man's mission is to use his spider-like powers to help others. Superman fights for truth, justice, and-until recently-the American way. Most superheroes don't begin with those missions, though. Their missions arise as a response to events in their lives-most frequently traumatic events. These events steer the protagonist to dedicate him or herself to a (superheroic) cause. The murders of Bruce Wayne's parents steer him to train and study for years and then don the Batsuit in order to reduce crime in Gotham City. The murder of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben leads the newly spider-powered adolescent to dedicate his life and powers to protecting others rather than pursuing fame and glory as an enhanced being. Clark Kent's questions about his place in the world steer him toward his mission as Superman.
Salander, too, has life events that steer her toward a mission. At the beginning of Larsson's trilogy, Salander's work as a private investigator is a job: she does the work she's hired to do and doesn't get involved in her investigations beyond what is required. She doesn't yet have a mission in the heroic sense, but when investigating Mikael Blomkvist for Dirch Frode (Henrik Vanger's attorney), the pieces don't all add up and she's intrigued. Mikael Blomkvist plans to go willingly go to jail without disclosing the sources for his inaccurate reporting on Wennerström. Salander welcomes the opportunity to be paid to find out more about Blomkvist.
During this same general time period that Blomkvist begins looking to Harriet's disappearance, Salander undergoes a new traumatic experience of her own that involves secrets, surviving injustice, and being disempowered: She is coerced into performing oral sex on her new guardian, Nils Bjurman-a man in a position to destroy her life and autonomy. Salander is not willing to remain subjected to Bjurman's torture, so she sets out to entrap him by filming him when he next demands oral sex. He demands more than that, though, and he brutally rapes her.
After being taunted by others and witnessing abuse in her home as a child, as an adult Lisbeth places a high value on being in control of her life-and Bjurman's brutal assault made her feel out of control. Although she gains a hold over him by filming the rape and thereby securing evidence of his crime, this hold came at a great personal cost. Salander is not someone who likes feeling powerless. (As we learn in the second novel, when she was strapped down in the seclusion room as a child, she'd calm herself by imagining being in control-by being able to act on her own behalf.)
It is in the aftermath of her experience with Bjurman that she discovers Blomkvist's new project: to find out what happened to a young woman, Harriet Vanger, who went missing decades ago. When Blomkvist asks Salander to research the case and track down old murders that might correspond to selected biblical passages, Salander is intrigued.
It is while hunting for the details of that first murder case-in which the woman was bound and tortured-that Salander seems to develop the stirring of purpose that Blomkvist already possesses. For her, the investigation shifts from an interesting puzzle that slakes her intellectual curiosity to one of a mission-to uncover the truth and see justice done. Blomkvist's mission becomes her mission, though they have different ideas of what justice might ultimately mean. Salander turns up additional murders that were not on Harriet's list. And when the job for which she was hired is over (but the killer not yet discovered), she wants to continue. Blomkvist says he'll pay her but she would have done so for free.
As she and Blomkvist find and put together the pieces, she also sees Blomkvist's burning passion to discover the person who sadistically murdered young women. Based on her own experience with Bjurman (and as we find out in the subsequent stories, her experiences with child psychiatrist, Teleborian), she can identify with these dead women-these victims-and no doubt views Blomkvist's goal and efforts to solve their murders as heroic. She is transformed by watching him and by taking part in the cause for truth and justice, just as sidekicks are transformed by their mentors (as Robin was by Batman, for instance). We see her channel her sense of agency and self-efficacy (her belief that she can do what she sets out to do), into a desire to fight for justice as she interprets it.
Transformation can also arise in response to trauma. In my formulation, Salander's experience of being raped was the turning point that steered her to her mission. Like other survivors of trauma, Salander found a way to make personal meaning of her traumatic experience. Salander's transformation as a result of her traumatic experience is consistent with the findings of an area of psychological research referred to as posttraumatic growth, in which the stress of trauma challenges people's beliefs-about themselves, the world, and their place in it-and induces them to grow in positive, meaningful ways. (A minority-about 20 percent--of people who experience a trauma go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD]; they may not experience posttraumatic growth while their PTSD symptoms are prominent and chronic.) Trauma can leave the survivor wondering "why did this happen?" and when the trauma has a personal element, such as with rape and assault, the survivor may wonder "why did this happen to me?"
As survivors struggle to answer that question, over time most report feeling stronger for having come through their traumatic experience. They make sense of their (senseless) traumatic experience and newly discovered strength by committing themselves to helping others. Sometimes survivors work to prevent what happened to them from happening to others. Candy Lightner and Sue LeBrun-Green, who lit the fire of awareness about drunk driving when they started Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), are perfect examples of this. The seeds of MADD were planted in 1980 after Lightner's thirteen-year-old daughter, Cari, who was walking to a church carnival, was hit and killed by a drunk driver. Another person who made meaning of family trauma is William Minniefield, an African-American man whose brother died waiting for a kidney transplant and whose other brother is waiting for one still. Organ donation by minorities is less common among and leads to even longer wait times for organs that are the best match for African-Americans. Minniefield founded the Minority Organ Donation Education Program to educate minority populations about organ donation, and to try to prevent what happened in his family from happening to others.
Other survivors may develop missions to help people like themselves-survivors after the fact. After David Schury's recovery from the burns that covered over 30 percent of his body, he and his wife Michele started the From Tragedy to Triumph Foundation, which provides support to burn victims and their families.
In a sense, Salander develops a mission after her experience with Bjurman: to use her talents and abilities to figure out who abused, tortured, and murdered young women. Her answer: Gottfried and then Martin Vanger. Like other trauma survivors, Salander acts to prevent further victims. She prevents Blomkvist from being another of Martin's victims, then injures Martin and chases him on her motorcycle at which point Vanger decides to kill himself, steering his car directly into an oncoming truck. Martin Vanger isn't able to harm any more women because of her intervention.
It is during the period of Blomkvist's helplessness-when Martin Vanger holds Blomkvist hostage in the basement room and is about to kill him-that Salander transforms from Blomkvist's sidekick to a (super)hero in her own right. Like any superhero, she saves him at risk to her own life. She's dedicated. Her sense of purpose is so great, in fact, that she becomes a moral leader with a clear vision of the correct path ahead. When she later explains to Henrik Vanger's attorney, Dirch Frode, what was really going on with Martin Vanger, Frode-temporarily unable to decide among untenable moral choices about what to do about Martin's basement torture chamber, how much to tell the police, and what to reveal about Martin's misdeeds-realizes that "here he was taking orders from a child [Lisbeth]."
Salander even espouses to Blomkvist the superhero's credo-that people have a choice in how to behave, even if they had a bad childhood. She challenges him by stating, "So you're assuming that Martin had no will of his own and that people become whatever they've been brought up to be" and "Gottfried isn't the only kid who was ever mistreated. That doesn't give him the right to murder women. He made that choice himself. And the same is true of Martin" (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
As with other superheroes, part of Salander's mission is to see that justice is served for others-in this case, the dead women-at least as much as it can be. She wants Frode and Henrik Vanger to do their best to identify the victims and provide their families with "suitable compensation." She also wants them to donate two million kroner each year, in perpetuity, to the National Organization for Women's Crisis Centres and Girls' Crisis Centres in Sweden. Her transformation to hero/moral arbiter is complete. She has made meaning of her own traumatic history and seeks to prevent what happened to her from happening to others.
The first novel is Lisbeth's "origin story," a story that explains who she was "before" (before the events that began her transformation) and who she becomes; superhero origin stories document transformations of personal growth, typically in response to some type of trauma or crisis. This transformation, reflected in her attire and behavior, is clear at the beginning of the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire. She no longer dresses to give off an angry attitude, and during the beginning of the Caribbean hurricane she put her own life at significant risk to find her young lover George Bland and bring him to safety. On their way back to the hotel, Salander again puts herself at risk to prevent Richard Forbes from killing his wife. Deviating from her normal snarky or defensive attitude, she is polite to the local police investigating Richard Forbes' disappearance, answering their questions without malice. She even allows strangers to touch her without giving them a look or biting their heads off! This is a different Salander than we are introduced to at the start of the first book. She is no longer someone who wants to be left alone and who interferes in other people's lives only through her computer, and only when paid or for her own personal ends. She has become a protector and avenger.
Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg
Her most recent book is the edited anthology, The Psychology of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
I didn't get a chance to see to see the film Limitless when it was in theatres, but I recently saw it on the small screen. Before I talk about it, though if you haven't seen it, here's an overview, from IMDB:
An action-thriller about a writer who takes an experimental drug that allows him to use 100 percent of his mind. As one man evolves into the perfect version of himself, forces more corrupt than he can imagine mark him for assassination. Out-of-work writer Eddie Morra's (Cooper) rejection by girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) confirms his belief that he has zero future. That all vanishes the day an old friend introduces Eddie to NZT, a designer pharmaceutical that makes him laser focused and more confident than any man alive. Now on an NZT-fueled odyssey, everything Eddie's read, heard or seen is instantly organized and available to him. As the former nobody rises to the top of the financial world, he draws the attention of business mogul Carl Van Loon (De Niro), who sees this enhanced version of Eddie as the tool to make billions. But brutal side effects jeopardize his meteoric ascent... Written by Relativity Media
Note that the concept that we normally only "use a small percentage of our brains" isn't accurate, so a drug that enables us to use "100%" doesn't make sense. Below is thissummary from Wikipedia about this myth and its inaccuracy (and yes, I know that Wikipedia isn't always correct, but in this case it's close enough. Here's a link to a Scientific Americanarticle about the topic):
At the start of the film a marijuana dealer says that we can only access 20% of our brain (and that NZT lets a person access all of it), referring to a common myth. The mechanism of how the drug actually works is never scientifically explained in the film. Neurologist Barry Gordona describes the myth as laughably false, adding, "we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time", and neuroscientist Barry Beyerstein has set out seven kinds of evidence refuting the ten percent myth.
Physics professor James Kakalios said it was plausible that medical science could improve intelligence, but that neurochemistry is not advanced enough for it to be achieved currently. Kakalios also said the notion used in the film that human beings can only access 10% of their brains is a myth: 100% of it is used at different times. Kakalios said if such a pill existed, a person running out of the supply could actually experience a rebound effect. This is alluded to in the movie, as the protagonist's ex-wife explains that she can't concentrate for more than 10 minutes at a time after coming off the drug.
But that's not what I want to address. I was fascinated by several aspects of the film, particularly the idea of being able to obtain enhanced mental abilities-in essence, a superpower-and its consequences. Medications for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder are sometimes referred to as cognitive enhancers or neuroenhancers because of their ability to help people focus their attention. To "enhance" their baseline level of attention.
If each person could have his or her mental abilities enhanced with medication, what might that mean for society? If all of us could obtain the same superpower, would it be a superpower? To paraphrase Dash from the film The Incredibles, if everyone is special, then in a way, no one is. Of course if such an enhancement pill or procedure were available, the likely reality is that it wouldn't be available to all of us.
If it's only available to some of us, though, then it's not playing "fair" for those special recipients to use it for an advantage. Yet if it were possible to do mental exercises to enhance mental ability (such as reading, attending classes, doing special logic puzzles), that would probably seem fair to most people, as long as these mental exercises were available to all who wanted them (and cost wasn't a barrier-there could be scholarships). Doing such exercises means earning the enhanced abilities. Putting in time and effort. It's analogous to the practice involved to play an instrument at a high level or to be an elite athlete. Such folks may start out with a certain level of talent, but they earn their way into high level so achievement.
What can rankle about the enhanced ability of the protagonist in Limitless is that he didn't earn the ability. He took a mental "steroid" to boost his performance and took advantage of it. He played dirty.
Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved. Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is DrRobinRosenberg.com and she also blogs on Huffington Post. Her most recent book is The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Recently, I went to the monthly Treasure Island Flea Market for the first time. I was amazed at the ingenuity and creativity behind some of the items for sale there, some of which were made by the people selling the items. For instance, one woman was selling recycled decorated wine bottles that she heated and reformed as small cheese plates or as bowls for dip, complete with spreader. At another stall the vender sold purses in the shape and appearance of the body of an electric guitar. Still another vender sold pendants in the shape of mah-jong and Scrabble tiles, but each pendant had different artwork on it. I was struck by how clever some of the items were, how they seemed to fill a niche that most of us didn't even realize existed.
For the rest of the post, click here at Huffington Post (or cut and paste the URL below).
Thursday, November 3, 2011
|Rebecca Aponte:||When you think about eating disorders, do you think of both anorexia and bulimia? Is there a lot of overlap in people who engage in these behaviors?|
|Robin Rosenberg:||There are people who engage in both types of behaviors. In DSM-IV, individuals who exhibit all the criteria for anorexia but who also binge and purge would be diagnosed as anorexia nervosa binge/purge type. So diagnostically, anorexia trumps bulimia, if you will. But that is just the DSM-IV; who knows what will happen in DSM-V?|
|RA:||Are they related?|
|RR:||They appear to be, at least for a significant subset of people. So in terms of the research, when you look at people who have bulimia versus people who have anorexia, that is not necessarily a helpful distinction. Anorexia has, in DSM-IV, two subtypes. There is the traditional restricting type, which is the people who eat minimally, and then there is the form of anorexia where people are significantly underweight and may be amenorrheic [they have stopped menstruating], but they may also binge or eat without restricting, but then purge in some way, or use other compensatory behaviors. Those people are classified as anorexia binge/purge type, but in studies, those people have more in common with people who have bulimia than they do with anorexia restrictive type. Some of this is a bit of a diagnostic artifact, because it's the way that it has been defined in DSM-IV.|
The most interesting thing about eating disorders in terms of classification issues is that it is not uncommon for people to move from one eating disorder to another over time.
... Continue Reading Interview >>
Sunday, October 23, 2011
In a previous post, I talked about military training, the ways that it "forges" soldiers, and what might be relevant to superheroes. Part of what the training does is it causes reappraisal--the (re)interpretation of stimuli. For instance, boot camp causes the cadet to reappraise what he or she can withstand, and what he or she is capable of. Similarly, the intense physical and psychological challenges that are built in to the Special Forces courses lead the soldiers to re-evaluate how they see themselves, and thus how they see what would otherwise be over-the-top experiences in adversity.
So soldiers, particularly elite soldiers, must learn to control their attention and direct it accordingly—to what is relevant for survival (Abele & Gendolla, 2007; Aspinwall & Brunhart, 1996). If they’re preoccupied with thoughts of missing family, they may not notice that tripwire or mine in the road. It’s the same with superheroes. They are amazingly able to focus their attention to the problem at hand, regardless of what is happening in their personal lives. Mullaney notes that if you aren’t paying attention to the relevant details, people under your command can die.
Controlling your attention also allows you to direct your attention to stimuli that may be less likely to induce counterproductive emotions. In a scary movie, if you find yourself being too scared, you may start to notice the actor’s makeup onscreen, or the temperature of the room, or in some other way direct your attention so that you can be less frightened. That’s adaptive. Soldiers must do this too, since being very scared on a mission isn’t adaptive. Their intensive training can become an anchor point to calm emotions that might get out of control; they might direct their attention to aspects of the current situation that are similar to ones during their training, thus providing a sense of mastery (“I handled a similar situation then, so I can now”) and momentarily diminishing the threat of the situation so that negative emotions don’t spiral out of control and interfere with the mission.
Batman’s years of training likely gave him the experience he needs both to direct his attention and to reappraise threatening situations as less threatening. For instance, when yet again facing off against the Joker, Batman can say to himself “this is just another in the Joker’s long string of plots, and in the end he always loses. That’ll happen again in this situation, one way or another.” Saying something like this makes the situation less scary.
Soldiers, police officers, fire fighters (and yes, superheroes) need either to have the ability to distract themselves from “negative” stimuli and thoughts—things that could induce too much fear, anxiety, or sadness—or develop it very quickly. Psychologists are studying ways to train these abilities associated with resilience in people who don’t naturally come by them. One type of training is called cognitive control training, and occurs as part of mindfulness training as well as cognitive therapy. (Click here for an article about this.)
Resilience doesn’t mean that folks should never focus on negative stimuli, or should never feel afraid. Au contraire! Resilience involves the ability to figure out relevant from irrelevant negative stimuli. If you hear whistling that might be coming from a grenade, you want to pay attention to that sound, not distract yourself from it—even if you get scared in the process. Being scared isn’t a bad thing because it can give you an adrenaline rush that in turn enables you to fight the enemy or flee the scene. Too much anxiety, fear, sadness, though, can paralyze. (Click here for an article that reviews this literature; Troy & Mauss, 2011.)
And with experience, soldiers, and superheroes can develop their own kind of “spider-sense”—a mental tingling sensation when a military situation isn’t quite right. That something is off. You may not know what that something is right away, but time and experience lead you to trust it. (Note, though, that the spider-sense isn’t right 100% of the time, and sometimes relying on previous experience can give way to overconfidence in the spider-sense.)
Aspinwall, L. G. & Brunhart , S. M. (1996). Distinguishing optimism from denial: Optimistic beliefs predict attention to health threats . Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , 22 , 993 –1003.
Ochsner , K. N. Ray , R. D. Cooper , J. C. , et al. ( 2004 ). For better or for worse: Neural systems supporting the cognitive down and up-regulation of negative emotion. Neuroimage , 23 , 483 –499.
Troy, A. S., & Mauss, I. B. (2011). Resilience in the face of stress: Emotion regulation as a protective factor. In S. Southwick, D. Charney, M. Friedman, & B. Litz (Eds.), Resilience in psychiatric clinical practice. Cambridge University Press.
Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved. Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is DrRobinRosenberg.com
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Do you love what you see when you look in the mirror? Hollywood and the fashion, cosmetics and diet industries work hard to make each of us believe that our bodies are unacceptable and need constant improvement. Print ads and television commercials reduce us to body parts -- lips, legs, breasts -- airbrushed and touched up to meet impossible standards. TV shows tell women and teenage girls that cosmetic surgery is good for self-esteem. Is it any wonder that 80 percent of U.S. women are dissatisfied with their appearance?
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
From descriptions of the first step of any military training, the discipline and control for some soldiers may come from-and are enforced by-external forces, such as the challenging training schedule imposed on the soldiers, the rigid rules they must follow, the drill sergeant's enforcement of those rules.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Perhaps you, like me, enjoyed the two Christopher Nolan Batman films out thus far. One of the reasons that I liked the films was for their sense of psychological realism: I got a vivid sense of what it might be like to live in Batman's world (or have him live in mine). Moreover,Batman Begins provided a very psychologically rich and compelling version of Batman's origin story. It got to the heart of the question of why Bruce Wayne would become the Batman. The portrayal felt psychologically accurate. (As I psychologist, I feel that I can say that authoritatively.)
Although it took me a few weeks to get around to seeing Captain America (something I did this weekend), I was looking forward to seeing it. The movie addresses a part of Cap's history that-to my knowledge-hasn't been explored in comic books. Specifically, it addressed the details of his life from before he takes the serum to when he becomes the Captain America with which-or should I say "with whom"--we are familiar.
As an origin story, then, it must make a compelling case for why the physically slight and asthmatic Steve Rogers volunteers for a radical experimental procedure (and the risk of death) in the hope of becoming a super soldier. In my opinion, the film fails in this regard. Let me explain why.
In the beginning of the film, we learn several things about Steve Rogers:
- He's short and slight
- He's been rejected by the U.S. Military five times on medical grounds (he was 4F)
- He's doesn't like bullies and he believes in standing up to them
- He wants to help the war effort
With these tidbits, the film allows us to connect the dots: Rogers is so desperate to join the military because he wants to stand up to the bullies of the Axis forces.
But here's the thing. During World War II, those who wanted to support the war effort could do so in ways other than being in the front lines. Take the father of a friend of mine as an example: He had polio at a very young age, and one of his legs never grew right, so as an adult that leg was a good six inches shorter than the other one. (Although doctors told him he'd never be able to walk, they underestimated him and he walked throughout his life.) He was rejected by the military when he tried to enlist to fight in WW II (he too, was 4F). But he signed up with the Merchant Marines, an auxiliary of the Navy in which civilians serve to help supply navy ships. This was only one possible way to serve the larger military effort. The film doesn't make clear why Rogers didn't join the Merchant Marines or help the war effort in some other way.
And there would have been other ways. The film also tells us that Rogers was a clever guy: When he's in basic training that he's the only one in years who's figured out how to get a stuck flag down from the flagpole without climbing up to it (solution: take out the pin holding the flagpole to the ground. The pole and flag then come fully down to ground level). But if Rogers is so clever, couldn't he figure out a different way to help the war effort than risk his life on a super soldier serum?
For me, then, the film didn't provide a compelling reason for Rogers to serve in this particular way. To be fair, the film tries to get away from the easy brawn > brains play. Rogers (and we the audience) are told that Rogers-rather than a more fit cadet--was picked to be a guinea pig for the serum because "weak men know the value of strength and also compassion." (This may not be the exact quote; I was scribbling my notes in a dark theatre, after all. But the quote captures the gist of the line.) Thus, we are informed, Rogers is the perfect candidate to be a super soldier because his ability to be compassionate is a function of his having been a weakling. Wow-what would Superman (or Ma and Pa Kent) say to that? Or Wonder Woman? (Perhaps the fact that she's female means she's got a leg up on compassion?)
I was also disappointment by the two-dimensionality of other aspects of the film. The bad guys wear black. (And their faces they sport some weird leather pre-cursor to a Darth Vader mask-why are all the evil minions faces hidden behind a what-must-be uncomfortable and vision-obscuring mask?) The evil overlord is a power-hungry megalomaniac whose origin story I'd love to learn about; his dialogue feels like it could date from a World War II-era film. No depth there.
Once I was over my disappointment about the lack of psychologically rich material, I tried to have fun with the film. Yet I kept having moments of déjà-vu-that I'd seen something like this before. There were bits that reminded me of Star Wars (especially the evil minions marching in formation) and of Raiders of the Lost Ark (another film in which Nazi megalomaniacs mess with occult powers they don't fully understand in an effort to be boss of the world). There didn't seem to be a lot that felt unique to the film.
On a positive note, there was one bit that I thought was great: before Cap becomes the soldier he longs to be, there is a montage that showed the commodification of Captain America. He and two dozen dancers in patriotic short dresses do a tour of the US in order to sell war bonds. The montage includes Captain America comic books (yes, they worked in that there were Captain America comic books during the war-brilliant!), which are shown being read by children as well as some soldiers. A cool interweaving of fiction and fact.
We'll see what next summer's crop of superhero films brings.
Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved. Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is DrRobinRosenberg.com