This small isolated tree recently received some support in holding up the cliff. Steel rods were drilled into the earth. The artificial roots and green matting created a three dimensional structure that protected the cliff from collapsing. I imagine that we can at times feel like this lone tree, holding together a colossal wall of internal and external demands. If our personal resources are depleted, due to anxiety, fear, depression or conflict, we can be easily swept away in the next storm. We could see psychotherapy as the temporary matting and reinforcing, providing structure and stability while our confidence and strength develops.
I saw this overturned canoe on the foreshore at Surfdale, Waiheke. The image of a stranded sperm whale arose in my mind when I looked at the tear in the plastic. It seemed pointless leaving it there. It was never going back in the water, yet for reasons I’m unsure of, it belonged there with the other kayaks and dinghies.
Photo © Neubau Eyewear.
I spent two days in an unfamiliar suburb of Auckland recently. When I was driving through the business district I noticed a New World supermarket had relocated to a new site across the road. I’m fascinated at the speed spaces can degrade if they are no longer maintained. There is something reassuring and threatening in the way nature reclaims environments vacated by humans. Also the silhouette of the New World letters made me think we always leave traces of our past no matter how we try to distance ourselves from it. The picture I made shows something of these two elements. Yet at the time I realised the photograph didn’t work in the way I had hoped. What was most interesting was my imagined title for the image ‘The old New World”. I noticed some frustration, and while reflecting on my disappointment in the photograph, I looked down in front of me. There in the grass by my feet was a fish. I was struck by the thought that i had not seen a fish laying in grass before. I forgot the supermarket and became curious about how this fish ended up there. The idea of a fish out of water seemed to resonate with my experience over the past couple of days. I had been staying in an unfamiliar place, and had also that day attended a cultural event that was foreign to me. I was out of my normal environment, and this fish seemed to symbolise something of this. I do like the photo of the fish. The composition and light feel right, but more important, the experience and meaning behind the image are meaningful. The journey of making the two photographs reminded me that while we may start out looking for something particular, we often end up having the most profound experience when we meet with the unexpected.
Waiting for the Waiheke ferry to leave the downtown terminal I noticed the complexity of vertical and horizontal lines in front of me. The scene felt compressed and over flowing, and in the moment I wondered if it was a representation of how I was feeling about myself and the city. On my return from Waiheke Island I saw the land at a distance. It was now a wedge between sea and sky, and no longer had the tall and looming presence of the close up photo. The distant scene filled me with a feeling of potential, as if on my return to the city I could see the land and myself anew.
But something is changing. The endless panorama of hard light and high shadows is collapsing into grey sky. It would be easy to also collapse into a seasonal melancholy of longing for a longer summer, if it were not for the beauty of the light. The diffuse shadows of overcast days wrap around everything, destroying the myth of our harsh kiwi light. In the absence of glare we can look into the landscape without squinting. Its softness invites us in, and we in return can release to the dream like quality of it abstraction.
Lisa arrives at her weekly psychotherapy session. She finds it hard to believe that its 2035 already. She started therapy in 2031, at the time thinking she would get some short-term help for depression. She likes that her therapist will talk to her in person. He — the gender he takes when they meet in the flesh — seems happy to move between meeting in the physical body and working online with Lisa’s digital self. Lisa has been having a repetitive dream that she wants to work on today. She begins the session by saying she wants to show her therapist the dream images and also let him experience her feelings and sensations associated with the dream. They agree to log into a psychotherapy Internet server, where the two can begin the process of connecting their mind and body. Lisa sets her user preferences to allow her therapist access to her images, thoughts and feelings. Her therapist preferences are set to silent mode, meaning Lisa will only receive feedback through her therapist’s speech, gestures and posture. Her therapist, under different circumstances could change these settings to allow his own brain cycles and physiological profile to integrate with Lisa’s.
Connecting our brains.
How might this future scenario come into practice? One way is through development of the brain–computer interface (BCI), which links the human brain to the Internet or other communication networks. This system takes electrical signals from the brain and sends them through brain implants to a computer system. Currently this technology exists to repair human function, such as restoring hearing and vision. Brain signals are also used to control robotic limbs, wheelchairs and computer screen cursors. This can also be two way with electrical signals from peripheral devices feeding information back into the brain. These systems can also link to networks such as the Internet, which means brain signals can move across space and time.
Implications for psychotherapy?
What would it mean for psychotherapy if humans were able to directly communicate their thoughts and feelings with each other? The power of psychotherapy is being able to offer the client an attuned and empathic relationship. This provides the client with a sense that the therapist has not only heard them, but has also felt the emotional component of their communication. To empathise and attune the therapist must use what they see and hear in front of them, while also feeling what is happening in their own body and mind. There is some to and fro between the therapist and client as they attempt to refine their understanding of the client’s experience. What would happen to this process if the therapist and client linked brains through a computer interface? It would alter the therapists experience of having a ‘felt sense’ of the client. This felt sense is complicated and unclear because it is overlaid with the therapist’s personal history and current life experience, hence the need for the psychotherapist to develop their own self-awareness through personal therapy. The therapists ‘felt sense’ is tentative because they do not experience what the client feels. In a future BCI environment the therapist could feel the emotions, see the images and share the thoughts and dreams of their client. The therapist could also share their regulating capacity directly with the client. For example if the client feels overwhelmed by a current event, or triggered by a past emotion the therapist’s brain cycles could be available for the client to return to a baseline level of emotion. This happens to some degree currently when the client feels reassured by the therapist’s ability to think and feel on their behalf when they are unable to.
These futuristic possibilities come with the same concerns that we already have about the internet and our identity, such as: anonymity, identity theft, viruses, personal attacks, autonomy, corporate power, etc. But in this future scenario the brain and body are directly affected. Its one thing to have a virus on your computer and another to have one in your head! Yet the accelerating integration of technology into the human body challenges us to imagine the ethical, technical and clinical implications of a Cyborg psychotherapy.
My motivation for this post was Melanie Swan’s article The Future of Brain-Computer Interfaces: Blockchaining Your Way into a Cloudmind. https://jetpress.org/v26.2/swan.htm
An example of the early stages of brain to brain communication in rats https://youtu.be/ld_9CnH9m9I.
I’m sitting in a service station forecourt drinking coffee and watching motorists crawl along the neighbouring McDonald’s drive through. Other customers prefer to park and walk in.
A woman in her thirties strides towards the restaurant, pulling a small child with her. The frustrated child tugs on the woman’s rigid arm, while jogging to keep up. The roles appear reversed. Most children run ahead, while the sullen parents drag themselves across the asphalt.
Coming the other way is a grey haired man in his late 50’s holding the hand of a small boy. Beside the pair is a younger man, in his late twenties. The trio stop and talk beside a late model Ute. The young man talks to the boy and offers him a McDonalds toy. The boy ignores him, so he places the toy on the bumper of the Ute. The younger man walks towards a motorbike parked nearby. The older man takes the boys hand and follows. The three seem intimately connected, but the young man appears distant in some way.
I imagine he is on a supervised visit with his son. My fantasy is the boy’s mother is absent because of on-going conflict with the father. This means the older man becomes a chaperone. Regardless, the scene upsets me. I recall the stories parents have shared about being apart from their children. I look across at the toy perched on the bumper. As an object that will represent the bond between father and son, it looks precarious.
The young man is making an effort to talk with the boy. He drops down on one knee, holding his arms open he asks for a hug. The boy stares at the patterns his feet are making in the pebbles of the service station garden. The young man asks again. Hearing this, the older man encourages the boy. Suddenly, registering his father, the boy yells out “Goodbye daddy” and jumps up. For a brief moment they embrace, then, moved by invisible forces, they recoil.
The boy watches without emotion as his father stands and puts his helmet on. As he rides away the bike wobbles, as if shaken by an internal force trying to find equilibrium. The boy is distracted by something moving on the forecourt and starts to run off. The older man pounces, takes the boy’s hand and together they walk back to the Ute.
Uncle John* loves rugby. He played from childhood until the age of 40. While he is intelligent and articulate, his identity and social status in the past has stemmed from the prowess of his body on and off the field. This power did not come cheap. Over time he accumulated a range of physical injuries. He suffered a broken nose, the loss of four front teeth, concussions, strained muscles, damage to his spine and torn ligaments in both knees.
For as long as I can remember Uncle John tolerated the pain without complaint. His silent suffering reinforced his masculinity, while denying the expression or feeling of more vulnerable emotions.
The tension of tolerating severe pain without feeling the associated emotions means he is often irritable. This contributes to his intolerance of emotional or physical distress in others. It also makes him sensitive to comments that suggest any weakness in his character.
This sensitivity means Uncle John requires careful handling, so as not to wound the delicate ego that underlies the tough facade. I find it exhausting tiptoeing around him, while also bolstering the immature aspect of his personality. I’m left with the impression of dealing with a small boy, who requires constant attention and affirmation. This demand generates frustration in me that feels risky to communicate, which leads to stilted and tense interactions between us.
I have never had the courage to address this dynamic with Uncle John and convinced myself that now he is in his early seventies, change is even less likely. Yet on a recent visit he recounted running into an old rugby mate, whom he hadn’t seen for some time. Enquiring after each other’s health, they soon linked playing rugby with their current physical ailments. They questioned if it was all worth it, asking each other if would they do it all again. Both expressed doubts. In talking with me, Uncle John was clearer, saying, “it wasn’t worth it.”
I couldn’t believe it. This declaration seemed to shake the very foundations of his identity. His honesty forced open a portal to another world, in which proving his masculinity would be unnecessary. In this fantasy world boys would not be shamed for expressing emotion. We would encourage them to develop the feminine qualities of nurturing and empathy, and question the impulse to exercise power over others. Uncle John challenged my belief that he would never change. He also helped me realise that we can update our thinking and behaviour throughout life.
*Uncle John is a fictional character.