Today, i.e. 15th may 2013 is being celebrated as a mental health blog day by APA and in the spirit of the day I am posting a review of ‘A Lethal Inheritance’ by Victoria Costello. It is a book chronicling how ‘ a mother uncovers the science behind three generations of mental illness‘ and is an apt topic for the day highlighting the importance of public education and discourse about the topic of mental health. this blog pots and book review is a homage to all the people who silently suffer from mental illness, most of the time undiagnosed, or even after diagnosis kept under warps due to associated stigma, and their family members who face the burden of not just care-giving but the counterproductive and unnecessary guilt that many of them either by themselves feel or are made to feel by indirect societal gestures.
Let me also take this opportunity to apologize to Prometheus Books and Victoria : the book had come out a year ago and I was sent a review copy promptly, but could not review it earlier. Better late than never!
The book, as the subtitle reveals, revolves around three generations of Victoria’s family (this book is autobiographical) : her two sons Alex and Sammy, which have their own mental health challenges and the unraveling of one of them: a first time encounter with a psychotic experience which could be quite disconcerting for everyone involved: leads her on on her journey to trace the roots of this malady affecting her family and also on a scientific pilgrimage where she continues to search for reasons, symptoms and preventive measures for the various mental health conditions afflicting her family’s three generations.
If the third generation is her sons, the second generation comprises of her and her sister Rita. While she struggles with undiagnosed/ untreated depression for most of her life, her sister is found struggling with serious substance dependence and addiction- which in the end cost her her life.
The first generation consist of an Irish immigrant grandpa in USA, whose claim to family fame, is that nobody wants to talk about his death: a purported accident where he feel asleep /drunk on the railroads and died. Now Victoria is a journalist and a good investigative journalist at that. Not satisfied with the account her mother has narrated to her, she undertakes an investigation of her own that leads to surprising discoveries like the fact that her grandpa had dies seven months before hew mother was born , rather than afterwards as believed. Also that his official death transcript reads as died from accidental drowning in a lake, thus casting doubts over the real conditions surrounding his death and also raising a question, could we ever really know if someone had committed suicide or died accidentally even if the incident was of yesterday and not many years before. The fact that his grandpa was an alcoholic, an immigrant laborer most probably facing economic stress and suffering from some mental illness, and likely committed suicide, based on the guilt/ disgust and many other emotions it aroused in his relatives (wife , daughter etc) points to the various ways genes (Irish inheritance) and environmental factors come together to wreak havoc.
The book is large part sensitive narration of one’s own story, some part thrilling investigative journalism and remaining parts informed scientific documentation of symptoms, risk factors, early signs, preventive measures and genes-environment interplay in the making and unmaking of mental health. While the scientific facts are up-to-date, they wont be path breaking as this is not mostly a scientific book- its value lies more in a first hand account of how a family deals with mental health issues and how there are common genetic risk factors that manifest in various forms- from a teen having conduct problems and eventually psychosis, to an adult in the grips of substance use and addiction, to a mother fighting and feigning at the same time that she does not suffer from depression, to a long dead grandpa who was alcoholic and probably committed suicide, to traces of violence in other relatives.
The book is also important as it highlights that mental illness and genetic risk does not respect diagnostic boundaries- from depression to conduct disorders to substance use to psychosis – all manifest in the same family tree and were perhaps myriad manifestations of a same common inheritance.
My recommendations; read it, read it as a piece of fiction , as an autobiographical account; as an educative opportunity to know more about mental illness and risk factors or just to get a first hand experiential account of what it meas to live under the weight of a lethal inheritance- read it whichever way you like, but you are bound to come out with an enhanced and more nuanced perspective that would be richer for having read this .
Regular readers of The Mouse Trap will know that I have an abiding interest in all things mythological; also by profession I am a middle manager. Top this with the fact that I am a fan of Devdutt Patanaik and have written a couple of posts before about his work, and you will not find it strange that I could not pass a chance to review his latest book, Business Sutra, which successfully entangles mythical narratives and interpretation with sound business and management principles and practices.
The book appears voluminous, with more than 400 pages, but is easy to read and like his 7 Secrets trilogy, is path breaking in its format. On an average, each page contains an illustration/ hand-made cartoon, making the read lively and entertaining. Mythical narratives are used to elaborate on management principles in the main text, while in-text boxes contain real/ made-up anecdote from the industry to deepen our understanding of the issue involved.
While the book deserves to be savored just for its innovative form, the content itself leaves you more than satisfied. Business is seen as a yagna – where a Yajman offers services/ products in the form of Svaha to the Devta- which is the consumer of the service/product and once the consumer has been seduced to except the svaha, he is under obligation to return favors in the form of Tathastu. The tathastu is the return on investment (svaha) that the yajman gets.
Re-imagining business as a yagna is a little counter-intuitive, even for someone as steeped in Indian culture as me, so I can sympathize with my readers, if they do not get the hang of this- for really appreciating the analogy you have to read the book.
To give a taste of things, I’ll list the principles that have been clubbed under the heading of decisions:
- He who takes a call is a Karta.
- Every one is a potential Karta
- A karta who allows and enables others to take a call is a yajman.
- A yajman has the power to take and give life.
- The size of the contribution does not matter.
- All calls are subjective.
- All decisions are contextual.
- Not everyone can handle the burden of uncertainty.
- Every decision has a consequence.
- Decisions are good or bad only in hindsight.
- Decisions are often rationalized in hindsight.
- If the decision is bad, yajman alone is responsible.
- If the decision is good, yajman is the beneficiary.
As you can yourself see, the principles he elaborates on are not revolutionary- but the way he entwines mythology and makes a business case out of ancient wisdom is mesmerizing. All said and done, after reading the book, you will come away with a greater understanding and appreciation of Indian mythology and how that affects the Indian culture, than you will know of how to manage in a MNC context.
This book is a great read for those who are enamored of India, its mythologies and its culture, or are even fascinated by the human essence and psyche (like I am); but for those who are steeped in western principles of results oriented business culture, this may not provide tangible solutions to perplexing business and management problems.
While Devdutt may have aimed high, at revolutionizing the way management science is defined and delivered, only time will tell whether the svaha that Devdutt has offered to the readers gets a triumphant Tathastu from them. As for me, Amen / Tathastu!
Although this blog is mainly about psychology, I have interests in mythology and have earlier reviewed Devdutt Pattanaik‘s ‘7 secrets of Shiva’, under the Blogadda’s book review program. So when an opportunity to review Epic Love Stories by Ashok Banker came under the same program, I could not resist myself. While Devdutt Pattanaik reinterprets myths in modern light and draws explicit analogies , Ashok Banker sticks to a retelling of the myth in its original spirit- and how beautifully.
Banker has come out with a set of five such short books in the epic love stories series- based around Mahabharata, and two of them were sent for me to review- they arrived today and as they were comparatively short and intriguing, I ended up the better part of my evening reading them and musing about the themes depicted.
The first book I read was the one story I was already sort-of familiar with- that of Bhishma and Amba (a love story that was never meant to be). It s a simple tale of abduction by Bhishma of three princesses from a swyamwara, so that he can bequeath them to his cousin as his wives. While the elder princess Amba starts by hating her abductor, :on the course of the journey back to Histanpur, seeing the valor and protection offered to them by Bhishma, she falls for him.
One can easily mistake this for one of the earliest depictions of Stockholm syndrome, but then one would miss the point that Bhishma didn’t abuse or harass the princesses , but rather saved their lives, although, in a way he had also abducted them.
If the success of a fiction is judged by its ability to induce in the readers a willful suspension of disbelief, Ashok has succeeded brilliantly. You could almost visualize and rationalize the different sorts of arrows, javelins, canons etc used in the fight between Bhishma and his pursuers. So could you feel the chemistry building up between Bhishma and Amba. Ashok also ends at the right note, leaving Amba forlorn and spurned and headed toward nowhere.
The other book in the series I read was ‘the love triangle that changed destiny': a story about Devyani, Sharmishta and Yayati. Despite what the appearances looked like, it was not a simple love triangle story. Rather there were multiple stories embedded in it, some providing the context to the story- embedding it in the eternal fight between Asuras and Devas for supremacy- while others subtly highlighting the Varna system- how people can become a Brahmin, despite being a raj-kstriya by birth, or how a Brahmin could elevate others to brahminhood or curse them if need be- how Brahmins and Kstriyas existed, an dsometimes thought them superior than the other- what the different Dharmas of different Varnas were, the slave-hood and the Kings right (nay indeed Dharma) to sleep with the maids, and beyond this all there is an overarching theme of Sanjeevini or Eternal life or at least life that could be lived a thousand years or a life where one’s old age can be exchanged with someone for his youth—all questions that make one ponder that if we got life elongated or became immortal, would we still remain the same animals – driven by same lusts to retain our youth/ or will we be more driven by human concerns- the same Dharma obligation to feel fulfilled in our productive years by doing our duty?
Tough questions that remain lurking in the background, while ostensibly the story is mostly about whether you can trick someone into love or whether it follows naturally and from within.
This was a slightly longer read, but again the narration is fantastic and one keeps turning page after page, especially fro someone like me who had forgotten the original story and was rediscovering the myth.
Overall it was a nice evening spent – musing about the theme of love in the epics, about unwed mothers and sages siring sons, about swayamwaras and apparent choice wielded by women, about the good things in life like keeping Vows and sacrificing for your parents and about the darker side, where maids are treated as proprieties and inter-varna marriages are problematic and where someone could forcibly take someone as his or his cousins wife.
There is such a richness of emotions and wisdom, if one were to revisit the epics and try to appreciate the universals behind such folklore- its to the credit of authors like Banker that they are able to pull people back to such subjects.
This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!
I have a post over at Psychology Today about Labeling and its deleterious effects. That did lead to some heated discussions on Facebook, so be sure to add your voice to the discussion by commenting on the post.
The way I have framed the above issues, I’m sure you know by now, which way my sympathies lie. To make it explicit, I do not like labelling children / adult who have slightly differently wired brains, or who are temporarily thrown off-track due to acute stressors and circumstances beyond their control, with mental disease/illness labels – I believe the stigmatisation that accompanies such a labelling does more harm than good. This does not mean labelling per se is bad- we do need to label differences amongst us, both to harness properly the special abilities that such a diverse population presents, and to help them overcome whatever shortcomings they have by providing adequate and tailored societal support to accommodate such differences. Labelling becomes bad and counterproductive when the label is seen as permanent and innate (even a ‘gifted’ label is counterproductive if such giftedness is seen as innate and non-malleable), and has a negative, stigmatising and disability connotation.
Read the rest at the source; the last point needs elaboration. Just as labeling someone as Gifted may have negative effects, labeling someone as stupid or incapable also has long lasting negative effects. My TOI blog post touches on how Sir John Gurdon faced such a situation and came out victorious.
What are the chances that you would overcome such negative feedback, not be irrevocably scarred by such negativity, but instead show a high degree of resilience and positive attitude and take that as a challenge rather than a setback; and finally become not only a successful scientist, but also receive the highest honour in your field- a Nobel Prize? If that seems too good to be true, take heart. Sir John Gurdon, who received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for 2012 has actually lived that life. However, while most of us may wither into nothingness after getting so much negative early feedback; he took that as a challenge – he got that report framed and put above his desk in the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge (the only piece of accomplishment he ever got framed!) – And decided to prove his teacher wrong.
This brings me to announcing my brand new blog at Times Of India, which would be targeted more towards the layman, and also have a contemporary and Indian touch. My first post, on the occasion of world Mental Health day, questioned the exclusive focus on disease and illness to the detriment of a focus on health and positive aspects.
Consider again the widely available public knowledge that some children, having a particular genetic vulnerability (one form of Serotonin transporter gene), if abused as children, have a greater likelihood of getting depressed when they grow up. How many of us, also know of the recent Orchid and Dandelion hypothesis, whereby the genetic vulnerability is more of a heightened sensitivity to environment, whereby the same vulnerable children, if abused, can become depressed; but if provided a nurturing and supportive environment, can paradoxically be more resilient and resistant to stressors than those not having that gene variant. However, as the discourse on protective and resilient factors is lacking, the spotlight continues to shine on seeing such children as ‘at-risk’, rather than seeing them as resilient, if provided the right early start. These orchid children, requiring exquisite early care, to bloom fully, continue to be seen as liabilities rather than assets to be proud of.
And that finally brings me to my Split Blog Disorder. I think I owe a post listing all my various blogs. If you are reading this you are already aware of The Mouse Trap.
My other psychology themed blog is at Psychology Today, called The Fundamental Four.
I use my The Creativity Post blog The Muses and The Furies to focus exclusively on creativity and intelligence and also their relationship to insanity.
I have started blogging for Times Of India, and Mind Cafe focuses on topics of general interest with a psychological angle.
Apart from this I have a Tumblr blog Flotsam and Jetsam, where i typically post quotes that I find interesting.
The Mouse Trap readers will be glad to know that I have started writing a column over at The Creativity Post, titled ‘The muses and the furies’ where i will talk about creativity and the thin line dividing genius and madness.
My first post focuses on delineating the components of creativity. Here is an excerpt:
I propose that creativity is made of four factors:
1. The first factor is SURPRISE: whether one produces something that continues captivating attention, even though it becomes familiar over time. This may result from rare and remote association of ideas or a recombination process that brings familiar things together in an unfamiliar/unexpected way. This is the ability to think beyond conventional boundaries or categories, loosen up the associations and make remote associations between and within categories. This is also related to flexibility with which you can walk across categories and disciplines. An example might be Mona Lisa by Da Vinci or putting a urinal in an art gallery.
2. The second factor is ORIGINALITY: whether one produces something that is really unique and novel and unheard of before. This is creativity that is not just combinatorial but perhaps associated with transforming and transcending. As pre Pribram novelty is a result of new rearrangements of old ideas. If the first factor is about combination, this may be thought of as permutation or reordering. This is related to originality scores. An example might be cubism by Picasso where the face/familiar objects are rearranged, sort of.
3. The third factor is BEAUTY: whether one produces something that is appealing and aesthetically satisfying. Beauty lies in the eyes of beholder and is related to subjective preferences. Identifying beauty is a fast and frugal process and as per one conception, we find something beautiful, if we can process it easily (that is why average faces are more beautiful- ease of processing). This is related to fluency scores or the ease with which you can ideate. Expressionisms by Monet et al looks beautiful because it’s easy on eyes.
4. The fourth factor is of UTILITY: whether one produces something that is useful. As evident from the alternate uses task the utility of something is ambiguous and context dependent and yet measured objectively and not subjectively. Creativity is the ability to deal with this inherent ambiguity, be comfortable with it and look at things from multiple simultaneous perspectives to find useful contexts in which to use/ apply it. This is the ability to see if the solution actually solves the problem. Also the ability to elaborate an idea and add details to it, so as to make it useful/ relevant. Here, one can focus on one stream of thought/ idea and take it to logical conclusion, adding details and making it complex. The Miniature art of India, that has elaborate details, is an example of this form, and is useful in reconstructing history.
Read the full text here.
While we are talking about creativity, I recently engaged with Sam McNerney in a debate about whether a focus on small c creativity detracts from addressing the really important questions of Genius. Again an excerpt follows:
While I agree with Sam, whole-heartedly, that big C creativity merits a concerted focus, I also believe that small c is the way we will inch closer to the enigma of genius. It’s true that myths about creativity — that it is easy, natural for some, mostly cognitive in nature — should be dispelled in favor of a more rounded account of genius that takes grit, positivity, endurance, effort and curiosity into account. It is equally true that we can only reveal the essence of the creative process — that it involves recombination to produce surprise element, or transformations to produce novelty element, that great works of art/creativity are selected for by arbitrary aesthetic preferences as well as utilitarian concerns — by focusing closely on the small, everyday c creativity and the processes underlying them.
Lest I be misunderstood, my objection to Sam is on two counts: one, that the perpetuating myth of anguished art and tormented genius is as counterproductive as any other myth. Most creators/ innovators are likely to have positive frames of mind that treat failures as learning opportunities; I’m not saying they don’t struggle or work hard, but they don’t, necessarily, see the struggle as painful, but rather see it as challenging and enriching.
Second, a focus on small c creativity is as necessary as a focus on Big C creativity — as that approach is more likely to yield early fruits and help in identification of mechanisms.
Read the full argument here.
Another debate in which I recently engaged was with Douglas Fields (his ‘The other Brain’ was earlier reviewed on the mouse trap) – in which I argued that academic success was multi-factorial and good grades and test scores are not an either/or proposition . Excerpt follows:
Thus I would suggest that all academic success, however they are measured, are dependent on four factors: innate ability or intelligence, self-control and hard work, grit and motivational resilience and finally, a positive, incremental mindset. While some academic outcomes, like achievement test results (e.g., SATs) may depend disproportionately on innate ability and mindset (test results and transfer of learning), other outcomes—like grades—may depend more on personality factors like self-control and grit/motivation.
Read the full text here.