Works, Life and Marshmallows: Iterative Design

marshmallow

They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single marshmallow.  Ok, I say that, and more specifically I am talking about your life, job or relationship rather than a journey.  I am coming back to my practice from a brief sabbatical, and have been noticing that while many things are going to stay the same, a few are changing as well.  I’ll get back to the marshmallow in a minute.

One thing I learned on my sabbatical is that I definitely want to continue my therapy practice.  As I said to some friends on Facebook this week, “You know, I’m kind of grateful that I get to challenge the self-hatred of others for a living.”  As a clinical social worker and psychotherapist I get paid to do that.  One thing I also decided on my leave was to withdraw from the last managed care insurance panel I was on.  It made no sense to continue to decrease the time I could be seeing people due to paperwork and bureaucratic hassles, and it made no financial sense to have a waiting list of people who are willing to pay my full fee and also deserve treatment just so I could work at half my rate.  I have always built pro bono or sliding scale slots into my practice because I have a commitment to serving a diverse population, so why was I doing that and letting an insurance company slide the remaining hours of my week?

Part of the answer to this and most “why-have-I-been-doing-this-this-way-when-it-doesn’t-work-in-my-favor?” questions is fear. Most of us are afraid of change.  Whether we are staying in an abusive relationship, having difficulty getting sober, flunking out of college or missing days at work, most of us have moments when we see what we are doing to ourselves and ask the above question.  And then we often resume whatever the pattern is, leaving an interesting question unanswered and instead turning it into self-recrimination, which is really just evasion.  Another part of the answer is that we often act is if we only get one shot at answering the question of life satisfaction.  Here comes the marshmallow.

Invented by Peter Skillman of Palm, Inc. and popularized by Tom Wujec of Autodesk, the Marshmallow Challenge may be familiar to some of you:  “It involves the task of constructing the highest possible free-standing structure with a marshmallow on top. The structure must be completed within 18-minutes using only 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, and one yard of string.” (per Wikipedia)  You can call it an exercise, or play, but in either event the creators of the challenge have observed something very interesting about how different groups tend to approach it.  Children tend to make a first structure, stick the marshmallow on top, and then repeat the process over and over, refining it as they go.  Adults tend to engage in group discussions, arguments, power plays and plans to produce one structure built once to which the marshmallow is added.  In other words they tend to approach it derivatively rather than iteratively.

Iterative design is a method of creating a thing or addressing a problem by making a prototype (first attempt,) testing it, analyzing the prototype, and then refining it.  Rinse and repeat.  Iterative design isn’t good for everything: As parents know, often there is not time in the world for everything to get done in 18 minutes or before the school bus gets here.  But a life built on derivative design alone is destined for stagnation and rigidity.

Derivative design, as the name suggests, takes something from a pre-existing something-else, whether it be a rule, materials, social construction or interpretation of the something-else.  When you psychoanalyze a patient’s dream and interpret it as a manifestation of their Oedipus Complex, you are deriving your interpretation and their dream from the something-else of Freud, who in turn derived his Oedipal Conflict theory from the something-else of Greek mythology.  Derivative design can save time and effort in many important ways, by collapsing cultural memes and thinking and transmitting them forward through time from Sophocles to your office.  But as feminist thinkers and cultural critics have shown us, we might have arrived at a different “complex” if Audre Lord et al had been in on the prototyping of it.

Derivative thinking left unchecked can get you in a rut.  One of my most recent examples of this comes from The Little Prince, where he encounters the drunkard:
“- Why are you drinking? – the little prince asked.
- In order to forget – replied the drunkard.
- To forget what? – enquired the little prince, who was already feeling sorry for him.
- To forget that I am ashamed – the drunkard confessed, hanging his head.
- Ashamed of what? – asked the little prince who wanted to help him.
- Ashamed of drinking! – concluded the drunkard, withdrawing into total silence.
And the little prince went away, puzzled.
‘Grown-ups really are very, very odd’, he said to himself as he continued his journey.”

Everything derives from the previous thing, but in the end it sometimes gets us nowhere.

We all get in these difficult spirals.  A good therapist or supervisor can point them out to us and then encourage us to become iterative in our design:

  1. So what are you going to do this time?
  2. How did that work out?
  3. So what are you going to do differently?

Therapists starting their private practices also come to see me, often stuck in derivative thinking:

-I need my NPI number.
-Ok, why?
-To get on Medicare.
-Ok, because?
-So I can get on insurance panels.
-Ok, why?
-So I can get patients who will pay me so I can rent an office so I can have an address to register for my NPI.

If you are one of my consultees reading this rest assured I am NOT talking about you in particular:  I have had this conversation a hundred times with people.  We get indoctrinated into the world of managed care and get, well, managed.  In this case, I usually recommend the consultee start by imagining what kind of office space they want.  Answers have varied and included: Sunny, exposed beams, plants, yellow paint, toys, music system, waiting room with receptionist, friendly colleagues in suite, accessible to public transportation, elevator, warm colors, cool colors, and all sorts of other iterations.

Once you have a mental prototype you can either build or design your office, or find and rent it.  Again I tell folks to walk around the areas they want to work in, find buildings that look interesting to them, then walk inside and ask to speak with someone about seeing a unit.  Testing involves going to see several spaces.  Then they can analyze the results: Does the space look like it would become what they imagine it to be furnished? Are there things about their ideal that need to be discarded? Do they now realize that they could be even more wild in their expectations?

This is just one example of the ways that iterative design can open up possibilities.  But be warned, iterative design can be daunting for many of us raised in our current education system.  We have been trained to create one product presented in final form with the expectation that we will be graded on that product alone. Everything becomes about that one paper or exam, which is often more about regurgitation rather than innovation.

I have colleagues who take my breath away with the number of projects and ideas they are consistently throwing out there to see what happens:  It takes guts to do that.  I myself often am afraid that the Project Police are going to pop out and say, “What happened to your idea of a Minecraft group?  Shame on you for proposing it and not completing that project!  You are not allowed any more ideas until you show us you can carry that one out.”

Sound ridiculous? Of course it is, but does it sound familiar to you as well?  If it does, go out and buy yourself some spaghetti, tape and marshmallows:  The quality of your job, relationship and life may depend on it.

Interested in setting up a consult for your practice?  I have some openings come March.  Like this post? I can speak in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info. And, for only $4.99 you can buy my book. You can also Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!

No Matter How You Feel, You Still Failed

Game_Over

Psychotherapists are often people who prefer to deal with feelings in their workings with people.  Feelings are important, and being empathically attuned to how patients are feeling is equally important.  We are taught to explore the patient’s feelings, imagine ourselves into their lived experience, and validate that experience.

This is often where we become disconnected from other professionals we collaborate with, such as educators.  Be it Pre-K or graduate school, educators are charged with working with students to learn and grow as a whole person.  It’s not that they aren’t concerned with feelings, they just can’t get hung up on them to the exclusion of everything else.

To be fair, psychotherapy has a long history of taking a broader view on the individual as well.  A famous psychoanalyst, Winnicott, once responded to a patient of his who was expressing feelings of hopelessness by saying something to the effect of “sometimes when I am sitting with you I feel hopeless too, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of continuing to work with you.”

But often in the past decade or two, feelings have held sway over everything.  Students don’t complete their assignments because they felt overwhelmed and still expect to pass the course.  Adults feel emotionally exhausted and miss work or are late to it.  Children feel angry at the injustice of chores and don’t do them but still want their allowance.

A criticism I often hear toward video games is that they encourage people to believe that they can always just reset, do over and have another shot.  But implicit in this criticism is the fact of something I feel video games actually do better than many of us sometimes:  They acknowledge the reality of failure.

When we play video games, we are failing 80% of the time.  Failing in the sense of Merriam Webster’s definitions including:

  • to not succeed : to end without success
  • to not do (something that you should do or are expected to do)
  • to fall short <failed in his duty>
  • to be or become absent or inadequate
  • to be unsuccessful

In video games the reality of this is driven home to us by a screenshot:

minecraft71

 

 

warcraft

 

 

pac man

 

You can feel any way you’d like about it, angry, sad, annoyed, blase, frustrated with a touch of determination.  But no matter how you feel you still failed.

In life outside games, many of us have a hard time accepting the reality principle when it comes to failing at something.  We think we can talk, think, or feel our way out of failing to meet expectations.  My own predilection is that of a thinker, which is probably why I became a psychodynamic psychotherapist and educator.  I often waste a lot of time trying to think (or argue) myself into a new reality, which just boils down to not accepting the reality principle.  I notice the same with patients, colleagues and students, who miss deadlines, avoid work, come late to class and then try their best to think or feel their way out of it.

The first class each semester I tell my students, who are studying to be social workers and psychotherapists, that the most frequent complaint I get as an instructor is “I feel put on the spot by him.”  I assure them that this is a valid feeling and actually reflects the reality that I will put each and every one of them on the spot.  I will ask them tough questions, I will point out that they are coming late to class, I will disagree with ideas that seem erroneous to me.  Because if they think it is ok to be late or avoid thinking through a problem or confrontation in class, how in the world will they ever be a decent psychotherapist or social worker?  If the single mother you are working with wants to know how to apply for WIC, and you say you feel put on the spot by her question, that is a valid feeling AND you are useless to her.  If your therapist was 15 minutes late every week I hope you’d fire him.  And when you are conducting a family session and someone discloses abuse it is unprofessional to say “I’m feeling overwhelmed and sad right now, can you ask somebody else to go next?”

These sort of disconnects doesn’t happen overnight.  It comes from years of being enabled by well-intentioned parents and yes, mental health providers who focus on feelings to the exclusion of cognition and behavior, and worse, try to ensure that their children grow to adulthood feeling a constant sense of success.  When I hear self psychology-oriented folks talk it is almost always about mirroring and idealizing, and never about optimal frustration.  And I suspect that this is because we have become so focused on feelings and success that we are preventing people from experiencing optimal frustration at all.

The novelist John Hersey has said “Learning starts with failure; the first failure is the beginning of education.”  We commence to learn because reality has shown us that we lack knowledge or understanding.  That’s the good news.  We’ve woken up!  In this light I regard video games as one of the most consistent learning tools available to us.  When that fail happens and that screen goes up you can try to persuade it to cut you some slack, flatter or bully it, weep pleadingly for it to change to a win, but no matter how you feel, you still failed.  And because that reality is so starkly there, and because the XBox or PS3/4 doesn’t get engaged in your drama, that feeling will eventually dissipate and you will either try again, or give up.

Because that is in a lot of ways the conflict we’re trying to avoid isn’t it?  We want to avoid looking reality square in the face and taking responsibility for what comes next.  We want to keep the feelings flowing, the drama going, and we are willing to take entire groups of people and systems with us.  If we are lucky they put their feet down, but more often then not they want to avoid conflict too, and the problem just continues.

So here’s a confession:  I have failed at things.  I have ended a task without success.  I have not done things I was expected to do.  I have fallen short, been inadequate and been unsuccessful at stuff.  And nobody took away my birthday.  I’m still around doing other things, often iterations of the previous failures, quite successfully.

If you are a parent or educator please take a lesson from video games.  Start saying “Game Over” to those in your care sometimes.  If they can try again great.  If they want to read up on some strategy guides or videos to learn how to do it better, awesome.  But please stop capitulating to their desire to escape reality on the illusory lifeboats of emotional expression, rationalization or verbal arguments.  As Mrs. Smeal says in “Benny and Joon,” “when a boat runs ashore, the sea has spoken.”  Reality testing is probably the most important ego function you can help someone develop, please don’t avoid opportunities to do so.

Nobody likes to experience failure, I know it feels awful.  But to move through it to new realizations can be very liberating, and in time become more easily bearable.  And I truly believe that success without past failures feels pretty hollow.  When I play through a video game from start to finish without a fail I don’t feel like a winner.  I feel cheated.

 

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Reality Testing & The 7 Billion Rule

In this video, I discuss the ego function of reality testing, how it affects us, and ways to cope with distortions in it.  This is also another example of how I use technology, in particular YouTube as a transitional object for patients, allowing them to continue to remember our work together without compromising any of their personal health information.

This will be the last post for 2013, have a good end of the year and I’ll see you sometime in late January!

 

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Obama, Selfies, Projections & Death

In this video Mike Langlois, LICSW gives an analysis of what the furor around President Obama’s selfie at Mandela’s funeral could say, not about him, but us.

 

 

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The Changing Landscape of Social Work

TrekWorld_Nicholas-Roerich_Kanchendzonga-1944

Recently I had the great opportunity to be a scholar-in-residence at The University at Buffalo’s School of Social Work.  For three days I met with students, faculty and staff to speak about emerging technologies ranging from Twitter to video games.  During one morning, Dean Nancy Smyth and I sat down for a series of informal discussions around various topics, and the University was kind enough to let me share these videos with you.  If you want to learn more about how I can come to your institution to do the same thing, please contact me.

How to Use Social Media and Technology to Develop a Personal Learning Network:

 

 

If I Don’t Use Social Media and Technology in Social Work Practice What Am I Missing?

 

 

Social Work is Changing:  Integrating Social Media and Technology Into Social Work Practice

 

 

 

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The Internet Is Not A Meritocracy, That’s Why You Hate It

lightbulb

Recently, I had a discussion with a student about social media, and the fact that I usually start off a comment on a blog with “great post!”  She noted two things:  First, that it rang false to her initially, making her wonder if I even read the posts people write; and second, that despite this initial impression she found herself commenting anyway.  So let me define what a great post is.

A great post is one that captures your interest and keeps the thoughtful discourse going.

Now many of my academic readers are going to vehemently disagree.  They may disagree with this blog post entirely, and you know what?  If they comment on it, I’ll publish the comment.  Because the comment keeps the discourse going.

Also recently, I was explaining my pedagogy to colleagues who were questioning my choice to assign a whole-class group assignment for 25% of the student grade.  The concern was that by giving the class a grade as a whole I would run the risk of grade inflation.  This is a real concern for many of my peers in academia and I respect that, and as someone who believes in collaboration I intend to balance advocating for my pedagogical view with integrating the group’s discerning comments and suggestions.  In my blog however, let me share my unbridled opinion on this.

I don’t care about grade inflation.

Really, I don’t.  I went to a graduate school which didn’t have grades, but had plenty of intellectual rigor.  I am more concerned with everyone having a chance to think and discuss than ranking everyone in order.  That is my bias, and that is one reason I like the internet so much.

The old model of education is a meritocracy, which according to OED is:

Government or the holding of power by people chosen on the basis of merit (as opposed to wealth, social class, etc.); a society governed by such people or in which such people hold power; a ruling, powerful, or influential class of educated or able people.

 

I think that Education 2.0 has many of us rethinking this.  Many of our students were indoctrinated into that view of education that is decidedly meritocratic.  I suspect this was part of what was behind my student’s skepticism about “great post!”  My role as an educator in a meritocracy is to evaluate the merit of these comments and ideas, rank them and award high praise only to those which truly deserve it.  By great posting everything I demean student endeavors.

One of my colleagues Katie McKinnis-Dietrich frequently talks about “finding the A in the student.”  This interests me more than the finite game of grading.  Don’t get me wrong, I do offer students choices about how to earn highest marks in our work together, I do require things of them; but I try hard to focus more on the content and discourse rather than grades.

I frequently hear from internet curmudgeons that the internet is dumbing down the conversation.  The internet isn’t dumbing down the conversation:  The internet is widening it.  Just as post-Gutenberg society allowed literacy to become part of the general population, Web 2.0 has allowed more and more human beings to have access to the marketplace of ideas.  We are at an historic point in the marketplace of ideas, where more intellectual wares are being bought and sold.  More discernment is certainly required, but the democratization of the internet has also revealed the internalized academic privilege we often take for granted.  Every ivory tower now has WiFi, and so we can experience more incidents of our sneering at someone’s grammar and picking apart their spelling.  What is revealed is not just the poor grammar and spelling of the other, but our own meritocratic tendencies.

Detractors will pointedly ask me if I would undergo surgery performed by someone who had never been to medical school, and I will readily admit that I will not.  But how can we reconcile that with the story of Jack Andraka, a 15 year-old who with no formal training in medicine created a test for pancreatic cancer that is 100 Times More Sensitive & 26,000 Times Cheaper than Current Tests.  In fact, if you listen to his TED talk, Jack implicitly tells the story of how only one of the many universities he contacted took him seriously enough to help him take this discovery to the next level.  Meritocracy in this case slowed down the process of early intervention with pancreatic cancer.  One side of this story is that this test will save countless lives; the darker side is how many lives were lost because the meritocracy refused to believe that someone who hadn’t been educated in the Scholastic tradition could have a real good idea.

I am urgently concerned with moving education further in the direction of democracy and innovation.  Any post that gets me thinking and interacting thoughtfully with others is a great post.  On a good day I remember this.

But like many academics and therapists and educators and human beings brought up in a meritocracy, I have my bad days.  Like many of you, I fear becoming irrelevant.  I resist change, whether it be the latest iOS or social mores.  Last night I caught myself reprimanding (internally) the guy wearing a baseball cap to dinner in the restaurant I was in.

We still live in a world where only students with “special needs” have individualized education plans– quite frankly, I think that everyone should have an individualized education plan.  I think our days of A’s being important are numbered.  There are too many “A students” unemployed or underemployed, too many untenured professors per slot to give the same level of privilege in our educational meritocracy.  Digital literacy is the new frontier, and I hope our goal is going to be maximizing the human potential of everyone for everyone’s sake.  Yes this is a populist vision, I think the educational “shining city on the hill” needs to be a TARDIS, with room for the inclusion of all.  I also think that those of us who have benefited from scholastic privilege will not give this privilege up easily.  We desperately want to remain relevant.

I know it is risky business putting this out in the world where my colleagues could see it.  I know this will diminish my academic standing in the eyes of many.  I know my students may read it and co-opt my argument to try to persuade me to give the highest grade.  But if I believe in discourse and collaboration I’ll have to endure that and walk the walk.

I’m not saying that every idea is a good one.  What I am saying, what I believe that has changed my life for the better is something I find more humbling and amazing about the human being:  Not every idea is a good one, but anyone, anyone at all, can have a good idea.

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Innovation is Dangerous & Gaming Causes Asperger’s

GamerTherapist blog is on vacation and will return with new posts after Labor Day.  In the meantime, here is a reader favorite:

At its heart, diagnosis is about exerting control.  Clinicians want to get some sense of control in understanding a problem.  We link diagnosis to prognosis to control our expectations of how likely and how much we will see a change in the patient’s condition.  Insurance companies want to get a handle on how much to spend on who.  Schools want to control access to resources and organize their student body.  And with the current healthcare situation, the government is sure to use diagnosis as a major part of the criteria in determining who gets what kind of care.

Therapists and Educators do not like to think of ourselves as controlling people.  But we often inadvertently attempt to exert control over our patients and entire segments of the population, by defining something as a problem and then locating it squarely in the individual we are “helping.”

This week has been one of those weeks where I have heard from several different colleagues about workshops they are attending where the presenters are linking Asperger’s with Gaming Addiction:  Not in the sense of “Many people on the Autism Spectrum find success and motivation through the use of video games,” but rather in the sense of “excessive gaming is prevalent in the autistic spectrum community.”

This has always frustrated me, for several reasons, and I decided its time to elaborate on them again:

1. Correlation does not imply Causation.  Although this is basic statistics 101 stuff, therapists and educators continue to make this mistake over and over.  Lots of people with Asperger’s play video games, this is true.  This should not surprise us, because lots of people play video games!  97% of all adolescent boys and 94% of adolescent girls, according to the Pew Research Center.  But we love to make connections, and we love the idea that we are “in the know.”  I can’t tell you how many times when I worked in education and clinics I heard talk of people were “suspected” of having Asperger’s because they liked computers and did not make eye contact.  Really.  If a kiddo didn’t look at the teacher, and liked to spend time on the computer, a suggested diagnosis of Autism couldn’t be far behind.  We like to see patterns in life, even oversimplified ones.

2. Causation often DOES imply bias.  Have you ever stopped to wonder what causes “neurotypical” behavior?  Or what causes heterosexuality for that matter.  Probably not.  We usually try to look for the causation of things we are busily pathologizing in people.  We want everyone to fit within the realm of what the unspoken majority has determined as normal.  Our education system is still prone to be designed like a little factory.  We want to have our desks in rows, our seats assigned, and our tests standardized.  So if your sensory input is a little different, or your neurology atypical, you get “helped.”  Your behavior is labeled as inappropriate if it diverges, and you are taught that you do not have and need to learn social skills.

Educators, parents, therapists and partners of folks on the Austism Spectrum, please repeat this mantra 3 times:

It is not good social skills to tell someone they do not have good social skills.

By the same token, technology, and video games, are not bad or abnormal either.  Don’t you see that it is this consensual attitude that there is something “off” about kids with differences or gamers or geeks that silently telegraphs to school bullies that certain kids are targets?  Yet, when an adolescent has no friends and is bullied it is often considered understandable because they have “poor social skills and spend too much time on the computer.“  Of course, many of the same kids are successfully socializing online through these games, and are active members of guilds where the stuff they hear daily in school is not tolerated on guild chat.

Let’s do a little experiment:  How about I forbid you to go to your book discussion group, poker night, or psychoanalytic institute.  Instead, you need to spend all of your time with the people at work who annoy you, gossip about you and make your life miserable.  Sorry, but it is for your own good.  You need to learn to get along with them, because they are a part of your real life.  You can’t hide in rooms with other weirdos who like talking about things that never happened or happened a long time ago; or hide in rooms with other people that like to spend hours holding little colored pieces of cardboard, sort them, and exchange them with each other for money; or hide in rooms where people interpret dreams and talk about “the family romance.”

I’m sure you get my point.  We have forgotten how little personal power human beings have before they turn 18.  So even if playing video games was a sign of Asperger’s, we need to reconsider our idea that there is something “wrong” with neuro-atypical behaviors.  There isn’t.

A lot of the work I have done with adults on the spectrum has been to help them debrief the trauma of the first 20 years of their lives.  I’ve had several conversations where we’ve realized that they are afraid to ask me or anyone questions about how to do things, because they worried that asking the question was inappropriate or showed poor social skills.  Is that really what you want our children to learn in school and in treatment?  That it is not ok to ask questions?  What a recipe for a life of loneliness and fear!

If you aren’t convinced, please check out this list of famous people with ASD.  They include Actors (Daryl Hannah,) bankers, composers, rock stars, a royal prince and the creator of Pokemon.  Not really surprising when you think about innovation.

3.  Innovation is Dangerous.  Innovation, like art, requires you to want things to be different than the way they are.  Those are the kids that don’t like to do math “that way,” or are seen as weird.  These are the “oversensitive” ones.  These are the ones who spend a lot of time in fantasy, imagining a world that is different.  These are the people I want to have over for hot chocolate and talk to, frankly.

But in our world, innovation is dangerous.  There are unspoken social contracts that support normalcy and bureaucracy (have you been following Congress lately?)  And there are hundreds of our colleagues who are “experts” in trying to get us all marching in lockstep, even if that means killing a different drummer.  When people try to innovate, they are mocked, fired from their jobs, beaten up, put down and ignored.  It takes a great deal of courage to innovate.  The status quo is not neutral, it actively tries to grind those who are different down.

People who are fans of technology, nowadays that means internet and computing, have always been suspect, and treated as different or out of touch with reality.  They spend “too much time on the computer,” we think, until they discover the next cool thing, or crack a code that will help fight HIV.  Only after society sees the value of what they did do they get any slack.

Stop counting the hours your kid is playing video games and start asking them what they are playing and what they like about it.  Stop focusing exclusively on the “poor social skills” of the vulnerable kids and start paying attention to bullies, whether they be playground bullies or experts.  Stop worrying about what causes autism and start worrying about how to make the world a better place for people with it.

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Dopey About Dopamine: Video Games, Drugs, & Addiction

GamerTherapist blog is on vacation and will return with new posts after Labor Day.  In the meantime, here is a reader favorite:

Last week I was speaking to a colleague whose partner is a gamer. She was telling me about their visit to his mother. During the visit my colleague was speaking to his mother about how much he still enjoys playing video games. His mother expressed how concerned she had been about his playing when he was young. “It could have been worse though,” she’d said, “at least he wasn’t into drugs.”

This comparison is reminiscent of the homophobic one where the tolerant person says, “I don’t mind if you’re gay, as long as you don’t come home with a goat.” The “distinction” made actually implies that the two things are comparable. But in fact they are not.

Our culture uses the word addiction pretty frequently and casually. And gamers and opponents of gaming alike use it in reference to playing video games. Frequently we hear the comments “gaming is like a drug,” or “video games are addictive,” or “I’m addicted to Halo 3.” What muddies the waters further are the dozens of articles that talk about “proof” that video games are addictive, that they cause real changes in the brain, changes just like drugs.

We live in a positivistic age, where something is “real” if it can be shown to be biological in nature. I could argue that biology is only one way of looking at the world, but for a change I thought I’d encourage us to take a look at the idea of gaming as addictive from the point of view of biology, specifically dopamine levels in the brain.

Dopamine levels are associated with the reward center of the brain, and the heightened sense of pleasure that characterizes rewarding experiences. When we experience something pleasurable, our dopamine levels increase. It’s nature’s way of reinforcing behaviors that are often necessary for survival.

One of the frequent pieces of evidence to support video game addiction is studies like this one by Koepp et al, which was done in 1998. It monitored changes in dopamine levels from subjects who were playing a video game. The study noted that dopamine levels increased during game play “at least twofold.” Since then literature reviews and articles with an anti-gaming bias frequently and rightly state that video games can cause dopamine levels to “double” or significantly increase.

They’re absolutely right, video games have been shown to increase dopamine levels by 100% (aka doubling.)

Just like studies have shown that food and sex increase dopamine levels:

This graph shows that eating food often doubles the level of dopamine in the brain, ranging from a spike of 50% to a spike of 100% an hour after eating. Sex is even more noticeable, in that it increases dopamine levels in the brain by 200%.

So, yes, playing video games increases dopamine levels in your brain, just like eating and having sex do, albeit less. But just because something changes your dopamine levels doesn’t mean it is addictive. In fact, we’d be in big trouble if we never had increases in our dopamine levels. Why eat or reproduce when it is just as pleasurable to lie on the rock and bask in the sun?

But here’s the other thing that gets lost in the spin. Not all dopamine level increases are created equal. Let’s take a look at another chart, from the Meth Inside-Out Public Media Service Kit:

This is a case where a picture is worth a thousand words. When we read that something “doubles” it certainly sounds intense, or severe. But an increase of 100% seems rather paltry compare to 350% (cocaine) or 1200% (Meth)!

One last chart for you, again from the NIDA. This one shows the dopamine increases (the pink line) in amphetamine, cocaine, nicotine and morphine:

Of all of these, the drug morphine comes closest to a relatively “low” increase of 100%.

So my point here is twofold:

1. Lots of things, not all or most of them drugs, increase the levels of dopamine.

2. Drugs have a much more marked, sudden, and intense increase in dopamine level increase compared to video games.

Does this mean that people can’t have problem usage of video games? No. But what it does mean, in my opinion, is that we have to stop treating behaviors as if they were controlled substances. Playing video games, watching television, eating, and having sex are behaviors that can all be problematic in certain times and certain contexts. But they are not the same as ingesting drugs, they don’t cause the same level of chemical change in the brain.

And we need to acknowledge that there is a confusion of tongues where the word addiction is involved. Using it in a clinical sense is different than in a lay sense– saying “I’m hooked on meth” is not the same as saying “I’m hooked on phonics.” Therapists and gamers alike need to be more mindful of what they are saying and meaning when they say they are addicted to video games. Do they mean it is a psychological illness, a medical phenomenon? Do they mean they can’t get enough of them, or that they like them a whole lot? Do they mean it is a problem in their life, or are they parroting what someone else has said to them?

I don’t want to oversimplify addiction by reducing it to dopamine level increase. Even in the above discussion I have oversimplified these pieces of “data.” There are several factors, such as time after drug, that we didn’t compare. And there are several other changes in brain chemistry that contribute to rewarding behavior and where it goes awry. I just want to show an example of how research can be cited and misused to distort things. The study we started out with simply found that we can measure changes in brain chemistry which occur when we do certain activities. It was not designed or intended to be proof that video games are dangerous or addictive.

Saying that something changes your brain chemistry shouldn’t become the new morality. Lots of things change your brain chemistry. But as Loretta Laroche says, “a wet towel on the bed is not the same as a mugging.” We need to keep it complicated and not throw words around like “addiction” and “drug” because we want people to take us seriously or agree with us. That isn’t scientific inquiry. That’s hysteria.

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Breaking Eggs and Holding Your Fire: Some Thoughts on Skills Acquisition

cod-sniper

Not too long ago, I was learning how to fire a sniper rifle in Call of Duty. It wasn’t going very well. I kept firing (which you do by holding down the right-hand trigger) and missing. Or I would use the scope, which you do by holding down the left-hand trigger; and then try to find my target so slowly that I’d get shot long before seeing it. To make thing more complicated, my patient Gordon** was trying to teach me the difference between “hardscoping” which meant to press and hold down the left trigger, and “quickscoping” which was more like a quick tap and release of the scope.

The key to success, I was told, was to locate the target, quickscope it for a second to take aim, and then fire. The source of my failure was that I’d see the target and not bother to scope at all, and just fire. At first I didn’t even know I was doing that. I thought the scope was going up, and it was, but it was going up a split second after I was firing and not before.  After several fumbled attempts Gordon said, “you have to not fire and learn to push the scope first instead.”  I suddenly realized that he was teaching me about impulse control.

Because many parents and therapists are reluctant to play video games, in particular first-person-shooters, they only tend to see them from outside the experience.  What they learn from seeing that way is that FPS are full of violence, mayhem, blood and noise.  Is it any wonder then that they grow concerned about aggression and the graphic nature of the game?  It’s all that is really available to them unless there is a strong plot line and they stick around for that.

But as someone who has been playing video games for years I can tell you things are different from within the experience.  And one of the most counterintuitive things I can tell you from my experience is this: First Person Shooters can help you learn impulse control.  It takes a lot more impulse control to not fire at a target the second you see it.  It takes a lot more impulse control to wait and scope.  And because all of these microdecisions and actions take place within the player’s mind and the game experience, outside observers see violence and aggression alone and overlook the small acts of impulse control the player has to exert over and over again.

Any therapist who has worked with adolescents, people with ADHD, personality disorders and a host of other patient types understands the importance of learning impulse control. That act of mindfulness, that ability to create a moment’s space between the situation and the patient’s reaction to it is necessary to help people do everything from their homework to suicide prevention.  In addition, there is always a body-based aspect to impulse control, however brief or small, and so to create that space is to forge a new and wider relationship between mind and body.

All of this was going on as we were playing Xbox. Over and over again, I was developing, practicing impulse control from behind that virtual sniper rifle.  Again and again I was trying to recalibrate my bodily reflexes and sensations to a new mental model.  Don’t fire.  When my kill score began to rise, it wasn’t because my aim had gotten better, it was because my impulse control had.

Meanwhile, for the past two weeks I have been practicing making omeletes.

In particular, I have been learning how to make an omelette roulée of the kind Julia Childs makes below (you can skip to 3:30 if you want to go right to the pan.)

This type of omelette requires the ability to quickly (in 20-30 seconds) tilt and jerk the pan towards you multiple times, and then tilting the pan even more to flip it.  Doing this over the highest heat the movement needs to be quick and reflexive or you end up tossing a scrambled eggy mess onto the burner.  I can’t tell you how tense that moment is when the butter is ready and you know that once you pour in the egg mixture there is no going back.  To jerk the pan sharply towards you at a tilt seems so counterintuitive, and this is an act of dexterity, meaning that your body is very involved.

In a way an omelette roulée requires impulse control just like Call of Duty in order to learn how to not push the pan but pull it toward you first.  But just as importantly, making this omelette requires the ability to take risks.  It can be scary to make a mess, what happens if the eggs fly into the gas flame?!

Let me tell you, because I now know what happens:  You turn off the flame, wait a minute and wipe off the messy burner.  And then you try again.

Adolescents, all people really, need to master both of these skills of impulse control and risk-taking.  To do so means widening the space in your mind between situation and action, but not let that space become a gaping chasm impossible to cross.  Learning impulse control also happens within experience, not in a special pocket universe somewhere apart from it.  Learning risk-taking requires the same.  And at their core they are bodily experiences, which may be what Freud meant when he said that the ego was first and foremost a body ego.

When I worked in special education settings, I was often called on to restrain children in crisis.  Afterwards we would usually do a postvention: “What was happening?” “How could you do things differently next time?”  We were looking at their experience from the outside, constructing a little pocket universe with words, as if we understood what had been going on in the experience, in the body and psyche of the child.  I doubt these post-mortems taught impulse control.

I wonder what might have happened if we had risked throwing some eggs on the fire and encouraged the kids to play first person shooters or other video games.  If my theory is right, then we would have been cooking.

**Not his real name. Name, age, gender and other identifying information have been altered to preserve confidentiality.

Mike is on vacation until September, which means that he has started talking in the third person at the end of blog posts.  It also means that the next new post will be next month.  He’ll repost an old fave or book excerpt to tide you over in the meantime.

 

Like this post? I can speak in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info. And, for only $4.99 you can buy my book. You can also Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!

Guild Wars: The Conservative Attack on Online Therapy

Commercial-routes

“European commerce during the Dark Ages was limited and stifled by the existence of a multitude of small kingdoms that were independently regulated and who suppressed the movement of goods across their borders through a confusing and inconsistent morass of taxation, tariff, and regulation. This forced merchants to find another solution to move their goods, one that would avoid the strangulation that resulted from this cumbersome regulatory model. These merchants chose to move their goods by sea without being subject to the problems that were created by this feudal and archaic design, a move that changed the world. The little kingdoms took hundreds of years to catch up.”

–Harris, E., & Younggren, J. N. Risk management in the digital world.

Keeping up with policy is not my favorite thing:  But if I am to continue to be a consultant to therapists building their business and an educator on integrating technology into social work practice, it is part of the prep work.  So when a recent client asked me a question about licensure and online therapy in our Commonwealth of Massachusetts I surfed on over to our Division of Professional Licensure to take a look.  Good thing I did, and a lesson for all of you thought leaders and innovators out there, regardless of what state you live in.

There wasn’t much about technology, except for the interesting fact that the past several Board Meeting minutes made mention of a Committee discussion open to the public on “E-practice policy.”  I assumed (correctly it turns out) that this meant that the Social Work Board was formulating a policy, so I reached out to the Division and asked some general questions about what it was going to look like.  The answer was prompt and pretty scary.

The representative stated in her email to me that the “Board ​feels ​as ​if ​the ​use ​of ​electronic ​means ​should ​be ​employed ​as ​a ​last ​resort ​out ​of ​absolute ​necessity ​and ​it ​is ​not ​encouraged. ​The ​social ​worker ​would ​have ​the ​burden ​of ​proof ​that ​electronic ​means ​were ​employed ​as ​a ​last ​resort ​out ​of ​absolute ​necessity.”

I have several concerns about this.

Before elaborating on them, I want to explain that my concerns are informed by my experience as a clinical social worker who has used online therapy successfully for several years, as well as an educator nationwide on the thoughtful use of technology and social work practice.  I have had the opportunity to present on this topic at a number of institutions including Harvard Medical School and have created the first graduate course on this topic for social workers at Boston College.  In short, this issue is probably the most defining interest and area of study in my career as a social work clinician, educator and public speaker.

I also am a believer in regulation, which is why I have been licensed by the Board of Licensure in Oregon, and am in process of similar applications in several states, including CA, and NY, so that I may practice legitimately in those jurisdictions. I am a very concerned stakeholder in telemedicine and here are only a few of my concerns about a policy of “extenuating-circumstances-only-and-be-ready-to-prove-it:”

 

  1. E-Therapy is an evidence-based practice.  It has been found to be extremely efficacious in a number of peer-reviewed studies, over 100 of which can be found at  http://construct.haifa.ac.il/~azy/refthrp.htm .  In fact, telemedicine has been found to have comparable efficacy to in-office treatment of eating disorders (Mitchell et al, 2008,) childhood depression (Nelson et al, 2006,) and psychosocial case management of diabetes (Trief et al, 2007) among others.   To limit an efficacious modality of treatment by saying it needs to be used only in an “extenuating” circumstance or as a last resort which is discouraged would be a breathtaking reach and troublesome precedent on the part of the Board, which has not been done with any other treatment modality to the best of my knowledge.  Telemedicine was also endorsed by the World Health Organization 3 years ago.  And as I wrote this post, the University of Zurich released research showing online therapy is as good as traditional face-to-face therapy, and possibly better in some cases (Birgit, 2013.)
  2. To place and require a burden on the individual social worker to account for why this treatment modality is justified by necessity of extenuating circumstances also raises the issues of parity and access.  Providers familiar with the issue of mental health parity will hopefully see the parallels here.  Clinical social workers for example may become more reluctant to work with patients requiring adaptive technology if they realize that they could be held to a higher level of scrutiny and documentation than their counterparts who do not use online technology.  Even though the Board would possibly deem those circumstances “extenuating” it would require an extra layer of process and bureaucracy that could have the side effect of discouraging providers from taking on such patients.
  3. Insurers such as Tricare and the providers in the military are increasingly allowing for reimbursement for telemedicine; and videoconferencing software is  becoming more encrypted and in line with HIPAA.  While these should not be the reasons that drive telemedicine in social work, we should consider that a growing segment of the population finds it a reputable form of service delivery.
  4. Such policies require input from people with expertise in clinical practice, the law,  technology, and the integration of the three.  When I asked about whether any members of the Board had experience with the use of different newer technologies in clinical practice or how to integrate them, I was informed that “the ​Board ​is ​comprised ​of ​members ​with ​diverse ​backgrounds. ​They ​have ​reviewed ​the ​policies ​and ​procedures ​for ​electronic ​means ​for ​many ​other ​jurisdictions ​as ​well ​as ​the ​NASW ​and ​ASWB ​Standards ​for ​Technology ​and ​Social ​Work ​Practice ​in ​addition ​to ​the ​policies ​set ​forth ​for ​Psychologists, ​LMHC’s ​and ​LMFT’s ​in ​MA.”

The NASW policy which I believe she is referring to was drafted 8 years ago in 2005.  For context, it was drafted 5 years before the iPad in 2010, 2 years before the iPhone in 2007, and 4 years before the HITECH act in 2009.  In fact, the policy I reference says nothing about limiting technology such as online therapy to “last resort;” rather it encourages more social workers and their clients to have access to and education about it. That professional organizations may be lagging behind the meaningful use and understanding of technology is not the Board’s fault.  But to rely on those policies in the face of recent and evidence-based research is concerning.  If the Board does wish to be more conservative than innovative in this case, I’d actually encourage it to consider the policy adopted by the Commonwealth’s Board of Allied Mental Health Professionals at http://www.mass.gov/ocabr/licensee/dpl-boards/mh/regulations/board-policies/policy-on-distance-online-and-other.html which in fact does not make any mention of setting a criteria of extenuating circumstances or potentially intimidate providers with the requirement of justification.

I hope the Board listens to my concerns and input of research and experience in the respectful spirit that it is intended. I am aware that I am commenting on a policy that I have not even seen, and I am sure that the discussions have been deep and thoughtful, but I know we can do better.  As a lifetime resident of Massachusetts, I know we take pride in being forward thinkers in public policy.  Usually we set the standard that other states adopt rather than follow them.  I invited the Board to call upon me at any time to assist in helping further the development of this policy, and reached out to state and national NASW as well.  I hope they take me up on it, but I am not too hopeful.  I had to step down from my last elected NASW position because I refused to remove or change past or future blog posts.

If you practice clinical social work or psychotherapy online, it’s 3:00 AM:  Do you know what your licensing boards and professional organizations are doing?  Are they crafting policies which are evidence-based and value-neutral about technology, or are they drafting policies based on the feelings and opinions of a few who may not even use technology professionally?

This is a big deal, and you need to be involved, especially if you are pro-technology.  The research from Pew Internet Research shows that people age 50-64 use the internet 83% of the time, about 10% less than younger people; and only 56% of people 65 or older do. These older people and digital immigrants are often also the decision-makers who are involved in policy-making and committees.

If you don’t want to practice online, you may bristle at this post.  Am I saying that older people are irrelevant? No.  Am I saying that traditional psychotherapy in an office is obsolete? Absolutely not.  But I am saying that there is a backlash against technology from people who are defensive and scared of becoming irrelevant, and fear does not shape the best policy.  Those of us with experience in social justice activism know that sometimes we need to invite ourselves to the party if we want a place at the table.

And with government the table is often concealed behind bureaucracy and pre-digital “we posted notice of this public hearing in the lobby of the State House” protocols.  My local government is relatively ahead of the curve by posting minutes online, but I look forward to the day when things are disseminated more digitally, and open to the public means more than showing up at 9:30 AM on a work day.  If they allow videoconferencing or teleconferencing I will gladly retract that.

At its heart, divisions of professional licensure are largely about guildcraft:  They regulate quality for the good of the whole guild and the consumers who purchase services from guild members.  They establish policies and sanction members of the guild as part of establishing and maintaining the imprimatur of “professional” for the entire guild.  They develop criteria both to assure quality of services and to regulate the number of providers allowed in the guild with a certain level of privileges at any time:  LSWs, LCSWs, and LICSWs are the modern-day versions of Apprenctice, Journeyman and Master Craftsman.  This is not to say guilds are bad, but it is to say that we need more of the senior members of the guild to advocate for technology if they are using it.

Too often the terms “technology” and “online therapy” get attached to term “ethics” in a way that implies that using technology is dangerous if not inherently unethical.  That’s what I see behind the idea that online therapy should only be used as a “last resort.”  We thought something similar about fire once:  It was mysterious to us, powerful and scary.  So were books, reading and writing at one point:  If you knew how to use them you were a monk or a witch.

Technology has always been daunting to the keepers of the status quo, which is why you need to start talking to your policymakers.  Find out what your licensing boards are up to, advocate, give them a copy of this post.  Just please do something, or you may find your practice shaped in a way that is detrimental to your patients and yourself.

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References

Birgit, W., Horn, A. B., & Andreas, M. (2013). Internet-based versus face-to-face cognitive-behavioral intervention for depression: A randomized controlled non-inferiority trial. Journal Of Affective Disorders, doi:10.1016/j.jad.2013.06.032

Funderburk, B. W., Ware, L. M., Altshuler, E., & Chaffin, M. (2008). Use and feasibility of telemedicine technology in the dissemination of parent-child interaction therapy. Child Maltreatment, 13(4), 377-382.

Harris, E., & Younggren, J. N. (2011). Risk management in the digital world. Professional Psychology: Research And Practice42(6), 412-418. doi:10.1037/a0025139

Mitchell, J. E., Crosby, R. D., Wonderlich, S. A., Crow, S., Lancaster, K., Simonich, H., et al. (2008). A randomized trial comparing the efficacy of cognitive–behavioral therapy for bulimia nervosa delivered via telemedicine versus face-to-face. Behaviour Research & Therapy, 46(5), 581-592.

Nelson, E., Barnard, M., & Cain, S. (2006). Feasibility of telemedicine intervention for childhood depression Routledge.

Trief, P. M., Teresi, J. A., Izquierdo, R., Morin, P. C., Goland, R., Field, L., et al. (2007). Psychosocial outcomes of telemedicine case management for elderly patients with diabetes. Diabetes Care, 30(5), 1266-1268.