Whether ’tis Nobler in the Mind

I may have inadvertently stumbled upon something important. I may have found a boundary marker that potentially distinguishes New Age from Old Age. Of course, definitionally I could be way out of my league –New Age being construed as anything that happened after I left university- but considered as a panoply, I think it works, if only conceptually.

I happened upon an article in the CBC news app while scrolling through my phone, that struck me as interesting: http://www.cbc.ca/1.4302866 -perhaps because I had never thought about technology in those terms, and perhaps because I felt embarrassed that I had been caught doing just that.

The premise was that we seem to turn to various apps on our devices for problem solving of many sorts. Everything from comparing shopping prices to trends in fashion to the latest news. And, as we are increasingly discovering, these digital peregrinations revisit us in the form of directed advertisements hoping to cash in on our whimsical journeys. Nothing is thrown away in the digital world –even our whims are stored, categorized, and pragmatically redistributed. And if notions, then it seems a small step to include moods. Emotions –positive, or otherwise- should be equally trackable.

In fact, I learned that ‘Google announced it now offers mental-health screenings when users in the U.S. search for “depression” or “clinical depression” on their smartphones. Depending on what you type, the search engine will actually offer you a test. […] And Facebook is working on an artificial intelligence that could help detect people who are posting or talking about suicide or self-harm.’

Perhaps this is where I feel the shadow of a boundary issue. There seems little question that mood disorders transcend age and gender; what is more problematic, however, is whether there may be a generational divide in confiding those emotions digitally, or even believing that solace could lie therein. The problem is not so much in putting these issues in writing –diaries, and correspondence, after all, have long been a rich retrospective source for biographers. The difference, it seems to me though, is the intent of the disclosure –diaries have traditionally been personal, and usually, not meant as a way of communication, but rather a way of sorting out thoughts. Private thoughts. Letters, as well, were directed to particular individuals –often trusted confidants- and not meant for publication outside that circle. Have the older generation –Generation R, for example (Retirement, to attach a label)- been sufficiently swept up in the digital river, to feel comfortable in clinging to its flotsam like their children?

I’m certainly not gainsaying the efforts of the internet giants to expand into the mental health realm –it seems a natural progression, so perhaps this is a start… and yet it’s one thing to key in on various words like ‘depression’ and have the algorithm kick in with a screening test, but another to sift through the context to determine the appropriateness of offering the test. I suppose random screening like that may be helpful for some, but as Dr. John Torous, the co-director of the digital psychiatry program at Harvard Medical School and chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s workgroup on smartphone apps, observes, ‘”One of the trickiest things is that language is complex … and there’s a lot of different ways that people can phrase that they’re in distress or need help.”’ Amen to that.

Quite apart from translational difficulties and the more abstract and culturally-fraught issues with their changing metaphors and societal expectations, there are other language problems –even in the dominant language of whatever country: changing vocabularies, local argot, and misspellings, to name only a few.

To state that human culture is complex, is a trope, and to believe that artificial intelligence will be able to keep up with its multifaceted, ever-changing face, anytime soon is probably naïve. And, as the article points out, privacy –no matter the promises of the internet provider, or the app-producer- is another weak link in the chain. Quite apart from malicious hacking, or innocent and trusting confidence in the potential for help, ‘Our phones already collect a tremendous amount of personal data. They know where we are and who we’re speaking and texting with, as well as our voice, passwords, and internet browsing activities. “If on top of that, we’re using mental-health services through the phone, we may actually be giving up a lot more data than people realize,” Torous says. He also cautions that many of the mental-health services currently available in app stores aren’t protected under federal privacy laws [at least in the United States], so you’re not afforded the same privacy protections as when you talk to a doctor.’

In a very real –if mainly age-related- sense, I am relieved I did not grow up in the digital age. I am fortunate that Orwell’s prescient ‘1984’ was available, not as a quaint attempt at predicting the future, but as a warning about a creeping surveillance that seemed so malevolently unrealistic when it was written –it was first published in 1949, remember. And when I read it, the date was still sufficiently far in the future that it seemed more science fiction than predictive. Yet, as the years wore on, and society changed in unexpected ways, the horrors of the theme, for me at least, became more and more uncomfortable. More and more possible, despite the reassuring smoke blown in our eyes by those eager for progress, and mesmerized by the possibilities.

I mention this, not to suggest that I was unique in this discomfort –I was obviously not- nor to imply that what we are now experiencing is evil, or even threatening, but merely to explain the hesitation of many of those my age in accepting, unreservedly, the digitally-wrapped gifts so readily proffered. It is not a venue to which I would likely turn for health issues, or emotional sustenance.

For me, there is something more reassuring about an eye-to-eye encounter with another member of the same species, able to understand the vagaries of language, and compare the nuanced phrasing of my words with the expression on my face. Perhaps, I’ll change -perhaps I’ll have to- and yet… and yet I’d still feel better dealing with an entity –a person– able to experience the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. And yes, someone who has read and understood what Shakespeare meant.

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The Tales We Write in Water

We are all stories, aren’t we? Largely untold, and seldom transcribed, we travel through our lives like cups filled to overflowing, spilling drops like patterns on a dirty tablecloth. It’s often not so much a reticence that keeps our information bottled up, as opportunity to share it. It’s why, I suppose, there is such a need for counsellors. Therapists. Ears, not just to hear what we feel is important to us, but to listen. Someone to understand our need for time on the pedestal…

Diaries do that as well, albeit with little feedback unless they are publicized. No feedback in fact if they are left unattended and unnoticed in a drawer somewhere for fear of discovery -disclosure of inner secrets too personal to admit, embarrassing moments too painful to discuss, dreams we fear are out of reach. And yet the very act of writing them down may not be wasted: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170601-can-writing-about-pain-make-you-heal-faster

Okay, I don’t really buy the premise of the article suggesting there may be something immunologically regenerating about writing, that healing occurs faster, or that there may be beneficial effects on health in general –and yet I readily admit that, as a sometime writer myself, it intrigues me. I’ve always thought about it in terms of catharsis, but now I’m not so sure. In 1986, a psychology professor named James Pennebaker asked his students to ‘spend 15 minutes writing about the biggest trauma of their lives or, if they hadn’t experienced a trauma, their most difficult time’. Six months later, he discovered that this seemed to have had an effect on their general health as measured by fewer visits by them to the health center. A bit tenuous, it seems to me, but it was his subsequent analysis that interested me more.

‘What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this simply happened through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d let out their pent-up feelings. But then Pennebaker began looking in detail at the language people used in their writing. He found that the types of words people used changed over the course of the four sessions.’ The students ‘[…] began by using the word “I” a lot, but in later sessions moved on to saying “he” or “she” more often, suggesting they were looking at the event from other perspectives. They also used words like “because”, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative.’

The perspective change that evolved in their writing is fascinating. As I write this, I’m reminded of a fragment of a poem by Robert Burns (To a Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church): ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!’… But, come to think of it, isn’t this very non sequitur an example of how the act of putting down words unlocks unexpected doors? Could writing be the Power to which Burns was referring…?

Well, perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, I’ll admit, and yet…

I had travelled into town to buy a piece of technological kit at a store in a huge mall in the center of the city, when I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the noise, the movement, and even the smell of the thronging crowd flowing over and around me like a debris-strewn river. I wanted to sit down somewhere, but it was lunch time and all the benches were full, so I headed outside to a little dog park I’d noticed on the way in. Even there the pews were occupied, although admittedly, not by dogs, but people eating fast food out of wax-paper wrappers. I felt a bit nauseated and I didn’t think I could handle sitting beside one of them, so I chose a seat beside a young woman who had eschewed her stomach for a little notepad on which she was furiously scribbling. A thin woman, with short blond hair and a blue business dress, I thought at first she was just catching up on office work; the fact that there was neither a laptop nor a phone in evidence, seemed only passing strange. Her face, young and unblemished, was somewhere else – certainly not here, despite the soft breeze that rustled the leaves, and the sound of birds flitting from branch to branch above our heads. But she looked happy. Content. Absorbed…

It was pleasant sitting outside, and the trees that ringed the tiny urban meadow seemed to keep the more annoying attacks of traffic noise at bay. After a while I became aware of something I hadn’t heard since I was at school, I think: the sound of pencil hurriedly scraping across paper. There was something atavistically soothing about it –something that brought back childhood memories: the sound of walking on fallen autumn leaves maybe, or the soft hiss of bacon that my mother was frying in the kitchen… Sounds totally unlike what I was hearing, to be sure, and yet compelling. Comforting.

In my reverie, I’m afraid I began to stare at her –or rather, at the notebook on her lap. Eyes, when left unleashed do things that are hard to explain. Hard to justify. And because of my unsolicited proximity to her on the otherwise crowded bench, she noticed. At first it was a scowl that tried to shoo my eyes, if not my very presence away, but then, seeing my embarrassed smile at being caught in flagrante delicto as it were, she smiled.

“Just writing down some thoughts,” she said glancing at her watch and then carefully closing up the notebook as if it were a bible.

In some way exculpated by her words, my face relaxed.

“Sometimes I just have to write them down before my office thoughts take over,” she added, shrugging contentedly as she stood to leave. “Helps me cope somehow…”

I saw her walk away along the wide gravel path, stopping from time to time to stare up into the trees, oblivious, it seemed, to the city that roared around her. And as I watched, I have to admit, so was I.