Sunday, 11 March 2007

Some nice breasts there, Melanie

There's a big group hug going on at Digg right now, as circa 2,400 geeks agree that being intelligent is damned hard. Apparently being bright makes you unhappy. Some might call it an emo circle-jerk.

Now, of course this is a load of old bunkum. There's no clear correlation between high intelligence and depression as far as I'm aware. In fact, it's been shown that having a high intellect can reduce the likelihood of suicide.

I (and probably you) know many 'intelligent' (I) people we consider to be happy (H). Equally, we know 'less intelligent' (D) people who are unhappy (U). There are two more combinations left of course; I/U & D/H. See, I can use algebra. 'Cos I'm clevor, me.

That said, I think there may be a kernel of truth in the proposition.

Assuming that intelligence isn't simply IQ, I've the good fortune of knowing some immensely gifted people. What I admire most about them is the way they occupy the 'Depressive Position'.

Now, bear with me whilst I explore what this term means. For those of you uninitiated to psychodynamics, hold on tight, because it gets a bit freaky.

Melanie Klein, a Freudian psychoanalyst, first described the Depressive Position in her work with very young children.

The child, in Klein's argument, engages in 'phantasies' wherein the mother's 'good' breast is idealized and loved, while the mother's 'bad' breast is attacked and devoured. The split between the satisfactory 'good' breast and the frustrating 'bad breast' is the child's first step into its 'I' prison - the breast is the first object the child experiences outside of itself. For the child, the good and bad breasts are not seen as belonging to a whole mother. Instead, they are experienced as separate objects.

Why would a child do this? Well,
"splitting" enables the infant to ward off anxiety by experiencing the loving breast singularly, and completely separate from the hated, persecutory breast. The good breast is then 100% good. Life in this position is a simple flip between all bad and all good; Black and white. Klein called this the "paranoid-schizoid position". (I doubt she'd have named it that today.)

At some point within the first year of life,
the infant comes to see its mother as a whole object, and, with this new perceptual ability, it comes to the horrifying recognition that the "good" and "bad" breast co-exist with the whole mother. The infant is grief-stricken by the recognition that, all along, it had been attacking the "good" breast along with the "bad" breast.

With this realisation, "the infant suffers extreme feelings of grief, guilt and fear of loss, and, as a result, seeks to make reparation for her/his damages to what once was the idealized, good breast. In exchange for this bitter realization, the infant's anxieties lose in strength; objects become both less idealized and less terrifying, and the ego becomes more unified. All this is interconnected with the growing perception of reality and adaptation to it."

So, if we think of the breast as metaphorically representing wholeness; good, bad and all the grey in between, then this realisation is the first experience of ambivalence for the infant.

Now of course, all of this is utter bollocks. We must not forget that Melanie
was the product of an unwanted birth - her parents showed her little affection. Her much loved elder sister died when Klein was four, and she was made to feel responsible for her brother’s death.

You could say that she had some "issues".

That said, her theories have some use when applied to object relations theory, and in particular the dynamics of groups. In the interests of brevity, I'll not touch on projective identification and other Kleinien mental gymnastics. This is a gross simplification of her ideas;

Groups of people occupying the Paranoid-Schizoid Position tend to view other groups as all bad or all good. Politicians capitalise on this each day.

Groups of people that inhabit the Depressed Position tend to view things in shades of grey. They're less inclined to blame, and tend to see both sides of an argument. They can hold an idea that they don't argee with, in the group mind, for the purposes of exploration. You could call this a 'grown up' approach.

In these respects, I aspire to sit in the Depressive Position. I aspire to have the beginners mind.

Like bible mythology, psychoanalytical theory must now be thought of as metaphor. In our brave new, cognitively behavioural world, it no longer sits upon its throne of truth.

It's a good thing I suppose. Psychoanalysis does make you talk a lot of crap.


King Aardvark said...

Well, Lisa said it on the Simpsons, so it must be true that intelligence is inversely related to happiness. She made a graph and everything. I'm convinced ;-)

Seriously though, intelligence does tend to cause you to be ostracized during elementary and highschool, which can be a major cause of unhappiness. Once that is passed, I really don't see any more relationship between intelligence and happiness.

jamon said...

Hiya King A,

Good point re kids ostracizing one & other. Being subject to this very phenomenon, there is something in it.

Kids however, ostracise anything that's seen as different, surely?

But, in this respect at least, being bright can be a pain in the arse when ur 13 :-)

Thanks for dropping by.

nil said...

I was just surfing the web randomly when I happened upon your post. I also read the Digg article of which you spoke and good bloody grief... I thought that this post was going to be something cynical and misanthropic stating that only idiots can be happy because the world sucks(something I often say in jest). But this... wow... intelligent people are incapable of happiness... I like to consider myself intelligent and despite an extremely cynical and misanthropic nature I can be quite happy... at times. Oh, and despite the seriousness of psychology I couldn't help but laugh at the good breast bad breast thing... Even if it's absolutely real I'd have to try awfully hard to figure out what led Miss Klein to the idea...

jamon said...

Hi Nil - thanks for dropping in. If I were you, I wouldn't think too hard about what possesed Klein to come up with her breast theory, it may hurt ;)