Berit Brogaard [beritbrogaard]
Which is your specialty in psychology?
I do research within the areas of cognitive neuroscience, color perception and psycholinguistics. I am particularly interested in the question of what distinguishes conscious experiences from unconscious, or automatic, processes. In my most recent work, I have also looked at how our assessments of other people's personality can affect our judgments of intentional action and responsibility.
What types of clients do you work with?
I use subjects in my studies and experiments. They tend to be college students or people with a neurological condition.
Is there a web site or blog where we can learn more about you?
My journal articles can be found here: http://sites.google.com/site/brogaardb/
My popular articles can be found here: http://sites.google.com/site/brogaardmainstream/
What methods do you employ? Could you briefly explain the principles your approach is based on?
I study the brain using visual search tests and brain imaging. I also use vignettes that describe cases in which a person behaves in a certain manner. I then ask my subjects to evaluate whether the person in the vignette is responsible for his or her behavior and to give a reason for their answer.
How do you market your services? Where do your new clients come from?
My subjects come from a subject pool available at the university. I also occasionally have had to advertise for subjects. Sometimes I collaborate with medical doctors, especially in cases that involve patients with serious medical conditions.
How obsolete is Freud today?
Freud's traditional psychoanalytic approach to therapy still has a major influence on today's psychotherapeutic methods. Cognitive and behavioral approaches to therapy treat people's symptoms and shape their behavior through habituation and other similar techniques. But more traditional approaches look for emotionally disturbing events in people's past that may have triggered their current problems.
What are some simple things that one can to do to fight stress and anxiety?
Mental scripting usually works well. First you identify your problems or the personality traits you would like to eliminate. Then you choose one or two of these to work on at a time. Think through scenarios where these traits may cause you problems (or anxiety/stress). Then play out the scenarios and your new effective responses in your mind again and again. Finally, go out and practice in real life. Continue until your new behavior becomes second nature.
Depression is almost epidemic. What is going wrong on the societal level?
The intense focus on accumulation and achievement in today's society can cause serious harm to people psychologically. American schools indoctrinate children to adopt these principles and make them the driving forces in their lives. Only people made of steel can live a life in which accumulation and achievement are the main values. We all need love and passion. I always tell my students to do what they love rather than what will make them rich and famous. Ironically, those who follow my advice tend to be the ones who get rich and famous.
What do dreams mean?
When you dream, the hippocampus, an area of the brain crucial to memory, and the amygdala, a center for the processing of emotions, replay experiences that happened in the recent past. Dreams don't follow a logical structure, because the replaying basically consists in releasing potential neuron firing in relatively arbitrary neurons of the brain. All that released activity takes a life of its own. You fill in the gaps. The replaying of the memories serves many purposes. One is to help store the memories in the outer layer of the brain called "the cerebral cortex." This area of the brain is a center for long-term memory.
Why is it so difficult for us to forgive ourselves?
It's not so much that it's difficult to forgive ourselves. It's that most of us have undergone extremely traumatic experiences in the past. When we experience something traumatic, we want it to go away. One way to make something traumatic go away is to repeat the event but add a different ending to the story. Say your father was always criticizing you when you were little. You could do nothing right. You wanted your father's love. But as you grew older, you realized it wasn't going to happen. You may now unconsciously choose a partner who is like your father in many behavioral respects. So, you may go for an emotionally abusive or emotionally unavailable partner and desire to change them. What you really hope to do is change the past. You want the past played out again but this time, you hope, it will have a new and better ending.
What does the phenomenon of falling in love consist of? Is there a cure?
Falling in love consists in becoming fascinated with or obsessed with another person. You idealize them, and the way you see their good qualities makes the chemicals inside your body go crazy. Serotonin levels drop, and dopamine will be waiting in your brain to reward you whenever you spend time with the other person. The state of being in love is chemically similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Is there a cure? Well, in some cases, the irrational in-love state will turn into a more compassionate form of love, which is not wild and crazy, but warm and caring. However, if you are in love with someone who doesn't love you back, get away from them right now. Approaching the other person in your crazed state of mind will only drive them further away.
What are the keys to creating healthy relationships?
Healthy relationships are stable, secure relationships characterized by a symmetry in terms of how much each party invests in the relationship emotionally and in terms of how many sacrifices each person is making. If you are addicted to the wild and crazy in-love kind of love, you will feel something is wrong whenever you are in a healthy relationship, because healthy relationships are not roller coaster experiences or connections resting on a chemical bomb that is about to explode. A healthy relationship is characterized by mutual admiration, respect and trust.
What new trends in psychology have stirred up your interest the most?
Cognitive neuroscience is my passion. I think the brain is absolutely fascinating. I will never get tired of thinking about how the brain creates conscious experiences and controls us without our knowledge of it: both phenomena are incredible mysteries waiting to be solved.
How is the creative personality different from others?
According to an old theory, creative people rely more on the right hemisphere of the brain, whereas analytic people rely more on the left hemisphere. But this old division has turned out to be too simplistic. Most people use the left brain to create new language and to interpret emotions. In most people, the right brain is more of a back-up drive than a creativity center. When people recover from a stroke in the left hemisphere, it's often because the corresponding part of the right brain takes over the functions of the damaged site. The brain is amazingly flexible. Of course, the right brain also serves many other purposes. It's not a flash drive where you store your left-brain drafts. But it would be wrong to think that the right brain is the center for creativity, whereas the left brain is the center for mathematics and logic.
What is a “healthy” ego?
According to attachment theory, a healthy ego is a secure attachment style. Many people have insecure attachment styles. People with attachment avoidance are very self-reliant and fear dependence and commitment. People with attachment anxiety rely on positive feed-back from others and fear being abandoned and alone. People with an insecure attachment style are not well-functioning people. They suffer from a kind of anxiety that attaches to different elements of relationships, not just romantic relationships, but also relationships with friends, family, colleagues, and so on.
Which are the most common psychological problems of artists and creative people in general?
There is a significant correlation between psychosis and people with artistic talents. Psychotic illnesses include certain personality disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. People who are intellectually creative (e.g., brilliant philosophers, physicists, and so on) more often struggle with neuroses. They often suffer from depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. According to a popular anecdote, which is completely unconfirmed, 50 percent of all professional philosophers are on antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. A small percentage of creative people suffer from high-functioning autism (Asperger Syndrome is no longer officially recognized as an independent condition).
What kinds of people do you think are at high risk for addiction?
Twin studies have shown that addictive personality traits are largely hereditary. For example, the heritability of alcoholism is 50 to 70 percent. That means that for any 100 individuals with varying degrees of alcohol dependence, genetic differences explain 50 to 70 percent of that variation. What characterizes almost all addictive personality types is an abnormal dopamine pathway in the brain. There are two kinds of addictive personality. One kind is characterized by an elevated dopamine response to exciting activities. These people tend to become addicted to sex, gambling, amphetamine, and so on. People with the second type of addictive personality have a neurosis-like brain chemistry. They will tend to become addicted to sedatives and depressants, such as alcohol, Xanax and pot.
Is it possible to program the unconscious mind for success?
Yes, mental scripting is one way. I mentioned that earlier. It can be very effective. Another way is habituation. If you want to be successful, you must eliminate bad personality traits and unfortunate behavior. How do you do that? Well, suppose you just can't stop thinking about a person who just broke up with you. That's distracting. You are not going to be successful when you have all these distracting thoughts flying around inside your head. Habituation consists in tiring the neurons that fire when you think about the other person. So, you give the brain an intense overload of exposure to the other person. Spend every waken hour of the next week thinking about that person, until your neurons get tired of firing intensely. For some people, the result of this will be that their brains react less strongly to thoughts about the other person in the future. So, when thoughts of the other person do pop up into their heads, they won't be as distracting.
What books do you recommend to help us develop a better understanding of ourselves?
Eric Schwitzgebel and Russ Hurlburt: Describing Inner Experience
David Dunning: Self-Insight
Tim Wilson: Strangers to Ourselves
In the past there was a lot of stigma associated with going to therapy, but now it is rather fashionable. When is and when isn't help from a psychotherapist necessary?
I believe everyone should go to a therapist once a week. You don't need to have a serious illness or condition to benefit from psychotherapy. It's a great opportunity if you think about it. Here is this outsider who cannot, and will not, share your secrets with anyone. She is interested in you and your problems. She will listen to you and help you solve your problems, and you will never have to return "the favor."
How should one deal with a friend who "psychoanalyzes" without having been asked to do so?
Kindly ask them to stop. Say you would prefer to talk about something different. If that doesn't help, maybe you should find yourself some new friends to hang out with.
Give us a simple prescription for happiness
Follow your passion when choosing jobs or careers, if at all possible. And don't dwell on the negative in life all the time. Look at the bright side of things. I had a journal rejection recently. After all these years, rejections are rare for me. So, it got to me at first. But then I started revising the paper, and I thought to myself that without that rejection, my paper would never have been as good as it is now. Think some positive thoughts every day.
St. Louis, Missouri, USA