kottke.org posts about georgevaillant

Inexpert expertsMay 18 2009

In the past few days, I've read two articles on men who are experts in scientific research in an area where they themselves have a deficiency. First there was the article on George Vaillant and the Harvard Study of Adult Development I linked to on Friday. Vaillant is an expert on what makes men happy; his own research shows that close relationships with family and friends is a significant factor in people living long happy lives. But those who know him best say that he has difficulty with relationships.

But Vaillant's closest friends and family tell a very different story, of a man plagued by distance and strife in his relationships. "George is someone who holds things in," says the psychiatrist James Barrett Jr., his oldest friend. "I don't think he has many confidants. I would call George someone who has a problem with intimacy."

He's been married four times to three women and has been estranged, at one time or another, from four out of his five children.

And then I was reading a New Yorker profile of V.S. Ramachandran, the noted behavioral neurologist who has worked on mirror therapy with amputees who experience phantom limb pain, the role of mirror neurons in autism, and synesthesia. Though his work with the brain doesn't focus on memory, it's still ironic that Ramachandran is almost pathologically incapable of remembering where he parked his car or when his wife's birthday is.

"Another time," [Ramachandran's wife Diane] continued, "I got a call from Sears and a woman said, 'There's a man here who says he's your husband and he's trying to purchase something on this credit card.' I said, 'Ye-e-e-s.' And she said, 'We're kind of concerned if it's really your husband, becuase he doesn't know your birth date.' I said, 'Oh, that's my husband!'"

"Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!" Ramachandran boomed. "That is a good story."

I could not resist asking whether Ramachandran has since learned Diane's birthday. They had been married for twenty-two years.

"I know she's a Leo," he said, slowly, eying her from across the table.

"I'm not Leo," Diane said, "You're a Leo."

"No," he corrected himself. "Virgo! Virgo!"

"Yup," she said. "August 18th," he said, with confidence.

"No," Diane said. Then she turned to me. "See, he gets the month, because it's the same as his."

"It's not the eighteenth?" Ramachandran asked.

"No."

"Twenty-second?" he offered.

"No."

At this point, Jaya asked, "Do you know my birthday?"

Ramachandran looked helplessly at his son and shrank into his seat. "It doesn't mean I don't love you," he said.

Beethoven was deaf. Monet had vision problems when he painted some of his most well-known work. I wonder if there's something to this beyond coincidence.

Squeezing the lemonMay 15 2009

What Makes Us Happy? asks Joshua Wolf Shenk in the June 2009 issue of The Atlantic. The article is a dual biography of two intertwined entities, a long-running study of 268 Harvard men and the study's long-time principal investigator, George Vaillant. The study was started as a way to determine how people lived successful lives. Valliant's main interpretation from decades of study is that how people respond or adapt to trouble correlates with their healthy aging.

At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or "psychotic," adaptations -- like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania -- which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the "immature" adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren't as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. "Neurotic" defenses are common in "normal" people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one's feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve "seemingly inexplicable naivete, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ." The healthiest, or "mature," adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).

Shenk then goes on to evaluate Vaillant on his own terms, with some interesting results.

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