A Psychological Metaphor for the 2016 Presidential Election

This is adapted from a post that was shared with psychoanalytic colleagues who were distressed about, and trying to come to psychological grips with, the alarming presidential campaign:

Here is a psychological metaphor on the election:  What if we viewed the USA as undergoing a national dissociative crisis, characterized by self-undermining, if not self-destructive, behavior?  And if, among the dynamics energizing that crisis, we privilege psychoeconomics, the psychological relationships with money among individuals and groups, in the context of an emerging planetary culture?

If we viewed the USA as undergoing a national dissociative crisis, instantiated in our politics, particularly during this presidential election, we would view conflicting parts of the polity as dissociated but dynamically interrelated parts of a whole.  We would see the dissociated parts as struggling for control, each experiencing the brunt of disavowed aspects of the other, and each having its own trauma history, supported by narratives incorporating fantasy and reality.

If we were working with a trauma patient, even if the patient had become unrealistic, delusional, or self-harming, we would still validate the experience of trauma as we tried to support an extension of awareness leading to healthier integration.  We would see self-undermining and self-destructive behavior as attempts at adaptation.  And we would try to understand, together with the patient, where the trauma actually came from; although we may not be able to get to all of it.

If we viewed the nation from that perspective, how would that help us contribute to the national discourse?  To begin with, we might help to start one.  In treating dissociation we invite the patient to join with us in co-creating a therapeutic conversation and relationship in which we allow credibility for all aspects of the self; and especially for the underlying feelings, and the experiences that gave rise to those feelings.

Of course, if we were treating a dissociated patient, the person would have come to us in the first place, needing help, and we don’t have that here.  Yet the fact that there is so much anger, fear, sense of disenfranchisement, and lack of a sense of direction and hope for actually facing and getting on the better side of the complex problems that face the nation, indicates that something real is going on, even if we may find the attributions and imagined remedies for those problems, to a lessor or greater extent, unrealistic and even delusional.

What if we viewed the dissociative conflict as primarily driven by psychoeconomics, the psychological relationships with money, and with others through money?  Money, having no intrinsic value, is itself a metaphor; a form of stored social energy whose value is whatever society agrees it is.  In the psychoeconomic dimensions of life, there are winners and losers, and among the losers are those who have lost, or are threatened with the loss, of their identities, including their visions and expectations of their futures.  Even the meaning of the past is at risk when, for example, the pension and healthcare benefits earned over a career can vanish in a company or civic bankruptcy, or a professional can no longer find viable work.

We can observe trends that contribute to widespread economic and psychosocial disenfranchisement, dislocation and disorientation, even as they also contribute to widespread opportunities and potential for liberation, going back to the founding of psychoanalysis.  It was in pre-WW I Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at a time when the great empires of Europe, the middle east, and to a lesser extent central Asia, were increasingly impinging on one another, and science and technology were overturning systems of belief, social hierarchy, and how people made their livings and related economically with one another, that psychotherapy took the form of two people meeting together to talk about the problems of one of them, for an hour at a time, over a series of meetings.  The intensively reflective space of psychoanalysis, with its privileging of unconscious and non-rational processes affecting thought, perception, and behavior, was criticized as irrational by authorities of the same cultures that, believing themselves rational, stumbled blindly into the worst war ever up to that point, resulting in the ending of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires, redrawing the political map of the planet, and leading to repercussions which are still playing out today; including in the current election.

If we viewed the nation, metaphorically, as a dissociating patient within the context of a planetary culture emerging in fits and starts and with much conflict, would that help to shed light on the current situation, and indicate ways of thinking and talking about it that might be useful?


Finding the Key: Rote Memory, Perception of Meaning, and Neural Networks

What we remember of what we have learned can depend on how well it was encoded when we learned it.  For example, if we learn a word list for a test, we might be able to recall some of the words after half an hour or so, but we can recognize more of the words we missed if we are given a list of words to choose from, some of which were on the list.

So, if I learn a list of words—say, “cat, tree, chair, piano, table, box, pail, clock, glasses, radio, door”—and then say as many as I remember after half an hour or so, I might remember “cat, tree, piano, box, radio, door.”  Then if I am shown a list of words that have all the words on the list in it, as well as a bunch of other words that were not on the list as distractors, I might recognize, “chair, table, pail, clock, glasses.”  The words I remembered without any prompting would be the ones that were better encoded when I first learned them, and the words I didn’t remember at first but recognized from the list of possible words would be words that were were not so well encoded.

Now, encoding, like any other learning process, requires the formation of neural networks; tens or hundreds of thousands or more of neurons in the brain, distributed across various parts of it, interconnecting and forming this memory.  The words that were better encoded, the ones that I remembered without prompting, had neural networks (called “neural nets” for short) with more neurons, and perhaps involving more parts of the brain.  The ones that I didn’t remember but could recognize had fewer neurons in their encoding networks, perhaps distributed over a smaller portion of the brain.

That’s a rote memory example.  Now let’s think about the understanding of meaning in language, by looking at a teaching story.  I first came across this story in the Nasrudin stories gathered and edited by Idries Shah, but I’ve since come across it in business, educational, and other contexts, without Nasrudin appearing as a character; which is an interesting example of cultural assimilation.  Nasrudin is down on his hands and knees outside, when his friend comes along and asks what he’s looking for.  “I’ve lost my key.”  So his friend helps him look, but they can’t find it.  “Are you sure you lost it here?” asks the friend.  “No, I lost it at home,” says Nasrudin.  “Then why are you looking for it here?” asks his friend.  “There is more light here,” answers Nasrudin.

Now, this story can be meaningful in a lot of different contexts.  For example, in a military, business or educational context, it can mean that conventional thinking is not going to be able to solve the problem of how to succeed in a particular operation or project; or of what the military calls “lessons learned;” understanding, after the fact, what went wrong.  I use this story in my work—in psychotherapy, diagnostic evaluation, consultation and supervision—to indicate that the way my client or student has been thinking about a problem may not lead to a solution.

What happens in the brain when a little story like this, a set of words that may not have much meaning for us except as a sort of joke showing how stupid people can be, suddenly illuminates an important problem in human thought and behavior, that has direct application in our own lives?   Surely there is a huge expansion, extension, interconnection, of neural networks, recruiting many more neurons and involving much more of the brain than the original encoding of the story.  Thus, the perception of meaning in metaphor can be understood as a significant event within the brain.

(See “links,” under the “resources” menu, for collections of Nasrudin stories)