Grow your own garden; feed your soul

I have spoken before about the positive effects nature has on our mental health and general well being, particularly by means of escapism. There are however, other methods that are beneficial for our mental health, as well as our physical (and even financial) health. I am speaking of growing your own garden. This can be as small and as simple as an herb garden, or much bigger, including root vegetables and fruits. It is a humbling experience, so you may be wondering how gardening could have such a significant impact on your life.

Firstly, connectivity to nature: as already discussed in a previous article (Bourassa, 2016), our connection to nature is very important, as Erich Fromm suggested in his proposal of humans eight basic needs (Fromm, 1997). By planting seeds, digging through the dirt, and feeding the sprouting plants, you are forming a very intimate bond with nature. This connectivity to nature is imperative to our development, our understanding of what it means to be human, and our place in the world. It humbles us and shows us just how small we are, but also that that does not make us any less important. We begin to understand, to be a part of the life process – we take care of our plants like a mother would take care of a child, by feeding, watering, and caring for our plants. And through all of this, we watch them grow, producing more seeds, more buds, and growing a family of their own. As Moore states: “Life is a cycle of giving and taking,” (Moore, 1989), and this is felt through our providing for the garden, and the garden providing for us.

Sense of purpose

By growing your own garden, you are providing for you and your family, and contributing positively to the environment. Not only will you know where your food is coming from, and have peace of mind knowing that all the food grown in your garden will be free of pesticides. Your garden will also provide a food source for insects, birds and small animals. Most people will dislike this idea; after all, you are growing your garden for yourself. However, by allowing these animals and insects to eat from our gardens, we are actually providing for the ecosystem. This has positive effects on our minds as well, we feel as though we are contributing to the betterment of the environment, we are providing for our family and ourselves, and we are less stressed. Why are we less stressed? Partially because of the healing effects nature has on us, but also because we are no longer financially strained, purchasing fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs at the supermarket, and we are no longer mentally strained by choosing between the more expensive, and better produce, or the cheaper produce, that may have been grown with pesticides, and which may not be local.

The healing effects of nature

As previously mentioned in my article Walden III (Bourassa, 2016), the environment is a natural healer. Our brains need oxygen, which comes from trees, to survive. In the countryside, there are far more trees and plants. Further, our bodies, and our brains need the sun, and the vitamins it provides us to feel content and healthy. As Nall indicated in what are the benefits of sunlight, the sun helps in the moderation of mood through the activation of the neurotransmitter serotonin (Nall, 2015). Proper sunlight also decreases pain and improves sleep, (Doidge, 2015), which is closely related to the onset of depression and other mood disorders.

Moore states that “nature and gardening have helped to restore people to health through both the restful and quiet viewing of lovely gardens and the sunlight, fresh air, and moderate exercise offered by outdoor gardens” (Moore, 1989). Although Moore is speaking specifically of horticulture therapy, gardening in a non-therapeutic setting could certainly provide the same effects. Fieldhouse (2003), found that there are cognitive benefits in gardening, particularly enhanced mood, improved concentration and reduced arousal. Fieldhouse further found that this sort of intervention was beneficial because its focus was on skills and aspirations, instead of a persons symptoms or deficits (Fieldhouse, 2003). Although the focus of discussion was on gardening groups, these same benefits can be felt in individual gardening – the only aspect that is not present is being social.

Self-actualization

Gardening has a multitude of benefits. One final benefit that I find especially important, due to it being absolutely essential to our development, is self-actualization. Gardening lays the groundwork for our physical health improving through better sleep, proper exposure to sunlight, and improved diet. It also improves our mental health by alleviating stress, improving our sleep, moderating our mood, and giving us a sense of purpose and connectivity. How does all of this relate to our ability to self-actualize? As I have said before, self-actualization cannot be achieved if we are focused on other needs (according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory), (Maslow, 1954). Gardening becomes a part of how we view ourselves; it connects us to nature and the environment around us. We engage in a give-take relationship; we become dependent on the environment and our garden becomes dependent on us. This of course gives us a sense of purpose, which contributes to our identity.

Gardening as a form of therapy has its merits, but gardening does not need to be structured in a therapy setting to have therapeutic effects. By gardening you not only have the privilege of eating your own produce and knowing where your food is coming from, you feel more connected to nature, are less stressed, and are more able to self-actualize, leading to better mental and physical health.

References:

Bourassa, Taylor. (2016). Walden III. Retrieved from https://insidethecollectiveunconscious.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/walden-iii/

Doidge, N. (2015). The Brain’s Way of Healing. New York: Viking.

Fieldhouse, J. (2003) The impact of an allotment group on mental health clients’ health, well-being and social networking. British Journal of Occupational Therapy; 66: 7, 286–296.

Fromm, Erich. (1997). On Being Human. London: Continuum.

Maslow, Abraham. (1954). Motivation and Personality. Harper & Row, publishers.

Moore, B. (1989). Growing with Gardening: A Twelve-month Guide for Therapy, Recreation and Education. University of North Carolina Press: London.

Nall, R. (2015). What are the benefits of sunlight? http://www.healthline.com/health/depression/benefits-sunlight#Overview1

 

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Understanding Empathy: Where do we go from here?

Now that we have given an outline of our understanding of empathy and the impact it has in a therapeutic setting, what should we do with this information?

Firstly, we should ask ourselves if we do indeed display empathy. It is okay if the answer to that question is no, and for some that may be the case. It is better to know that you are not displaying empathy than to go on thinking you are, all the while providing a sub-par therapeutic atmosphere for your clients.

The next step then, is to determine the method by which we learn to empathize. Some argue that empathy is something we are born with, but I believe that we all have the tendency toward empathy, we simply choose –whether consciously or not – to do away with it. Acting empathetically can prove difficult when you do not have a relationship with the person, or you are dealing with your own troubles. It is most difficult however, when you have never been shown yourself. This is often the case. We live in a society, especially now, that shies away from intimacy, and emotional expression. We are taught briefly in school that “active listening” is the best way to be heard, but as we grow older we begin acting selfishly, we start looking for our turn in the conversation, rather than listening to and reacting to what our companion is saying. We briefly address their points, and then delve right into what we have been ruminating about while we impatiently await our turn.

This undoubtedly results in animosity and feelings of invalidation. It can be a frightening, and anxious experience to share a part of yourself with another person. There is the looming fear of judgment; the fear that what has to be said will change the relationship dynamic. Because of these two things, people often hold back the things they want to say. This of course, leads the individual to ruminate upon their feelings, which in turn motivates somatic symptoms, as well as more pathological mental symptoms to develop. In order to avoid such things from occurring, we must learn how to be empathetic.

Rogers gives us the best example of what it means to be empathetic, as well as the best evidence for our ability to learn empathy (Rogers, 1951, 1959, 1974). He mentions in his lecture on empathy, that what he found most helpful when he was unable to provide the client with any active assistance was to actively listen, and to truly hear what the client was saying. He found this to be the most helpful passive approach to therapy (1974). Harlene Anderson notes in her article “Some Notes on Listening, Hearing and Speaking And the Relationship to Dialogue” that: “clients say they want to be listened to and heard. In the majority of my conversation with clients about their experience of therapy and whether it was helpful, the most common factor in unsuccessful therapies was not being listened to or heard” (Anderson, 2003). If this is what clients are saying, then we should be listening.

Learning how to be empathetic.

This is somewhat of a daunting task, considering the society in which we are living. I have talked before about how our relationships are very shallow means-end relationships, and this has essentially conditioned us to act very selfishly. This is expressed through our conversation styles, our impatience with each other and our inability to truly listen and feel what others are feeling. It would be too much of a commitment to begin discussing all the ways these attitudes are presented throughout society, so I will avoid such a digression. However, it should be noted that our connectivity can be feigned through slacktivism, and shallow social interactions (attending movies, or shopping centers are just a few examples). This is of course, not to say that we should not be allowing ourselves less intimate interactions, in fact, these lay the groundwork for any substantial relationship we are to have. What I am saying however is that our reliance on these interactions is what causes us to have an inability to delve below surface level.

How can we learn something like empathy? I propose a sort of conditioning. To begin with, we must force ourselves to be empathetic in every situation we encounter, even those that are shallow by nature. Empathy should not be forced in situations in which it is not warranted. What I mean to say here is that you should not seek out opportunities to be empathetic, rather, you should be ready to be empathetic in every situation. Part of empathy is not forcing someone to express themselves if they do not feel it is necessary. By preparing yourself to be empathetic, you are on the way to realizing it.

To give you an example, imagine you are walking through the mall with your friend. She mentions she wants to buy a new dress, and she sees one in the shop window that she really likes. Instead of a typical response which may run something like: “I like that dress too, I am also looking for a new dress because I have a party to attend,” keep the focus on her, mention that you think the dress would look good on her, and ask her why she is looking for a new dress. Do not mention yourself or your interests. This shows her I heard what you said, and I would like to know more. It builds trust, and confidence in your friend. It shows her that what she has to say is important, and that you are listening to what she has to say. It may seem simple, and though this is a very shallow exchange with little emotional weight, you are paving the way for future intimacy.

This sort of exchange not only allows your friend to feel more comfortable and more trusting, it also conditions you to act in a more empathetic way whenever possible. Empathy is not only meant for therapy.

Some things to consider as you teach yourself to become more empathetic:

  • practice active listening
  • delve below surface level whenever possible
  • paraphrase what the person has said, and validate what they have said
  • do not interject with solutions to problems, or with your own input
  • whenever possible, steer the conversation towards the other, if you are finding it difficult to listen and you find yourself waiting for your turn let the other person know.
  • Be as honest and as accepting as possible

By practicing all 6 items on our list daily, it will become second nature to you. You will find it much easier to be empathetic, and you will not have to think about it. Empathy should be incorporated into our everyday lives, as well as into therapy. By conditioning ourselves to act in such a way we may also encourage others to do so, which of course, can only produce positive results.

Empathy is a difficult concept for some. We feel as though we are being empathetic, yet our thoughts are straying, our eyes are wandering, or we are inadvertently invalidating the feelings of others. By practicing empathy, and becoming more empathetic we allow ourselves to grow, and we allow others to grow, in a positive and healthy environment. Empathy is such an essential tool in the therapy kit, and it should be used as often as possible, whether you believe you have the skill or not.

 

References:

American Personnel and Guidance Association. (1974). Carl Rogers’s 1974 lecture on empathy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMi7uY83z-U&feature=share&list=PL9w3l7GkGUr1yxU4s2PiggyCbOO3XfpRf

Anderson, H. (2003). Eight Annual Open Dialogue Conference: What is Helpful in Treatment Dialogue? Tornio, Finland.

Rogers, Carl. (1951). Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. London: Constable. ISBN 1-84119-840-4.

 

Rogers, Carl. (1959). A Theory of Therapy, Personality and Interpersonal Relationships as Developed in the Client-centered Framework. In (ed.) S. Koch,Psychology: A Study of a Science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the Person and the Social Context. New York: McGraw Hill.

 

 

 

 

Understanding Empathy: The Role Carl Rogers has had on Psychotherapeutic Interventions

We are all familiar with the history of Psychotherapy, and the inauguration of Psychoanalysis as one of its leading methods. What some may not be familiar with is the integral component of all therapeutic approaches – empathy. It may seem like common sense – if we are analyzing a client, or listening to their problems, we are being empathetic towards them. This is a significant misconception. Although it seems straightforward, most therapists who do not follow a client-centered approach actually fail to take an empathetic stance.

Webster’s defines empathy as understanding someone else’s point of view, being able to put yourself in their position, to share their emotions and feelings (Merriam-Webster). Essentially what is happening when we employ empathy is that we are telling the person “I understand what you are going through, and I’m here to help you.” We show solidarity with them, we support the individual without infringing upon their personal autonomy. Carl Rogers outlined empathy in a therapeutic setting as expressing the desire to understand and appreciate the clients’ perspective, which is closely related to unconditional positive regard. By being empathetic in a therapeutic setting, we not only allow the client to feel open, and capable of expression, but by doing so in such a safe and welcoming atmosphere, we also allow ourselves to understand the client. Should we choose not to be empathetic, and find ourselves trying to “fix” the client, or the clients’ problems, the therapy will end up helping us more than it will help the client. Why do I say this? Because when we offer solutions, and when we allow ourselves to be overcome by the idea of solving the problem, we are actually acting in a way that is motivated by our own pride, and our own needs. The client is in need of a listener, in need of a person who will acknowledge and validate their feelings, without judgment, and without solution. It may seem strange, why then, would you go to therapy, if you were not looking for a solution?

It is not that the client is not looking for a solution, but that the client is the source of the solution. By offering the client our empathy we also give them the control. Control is so important in therapy, just as it is important in our everyday lives. More often than not, the client is in therapy because he feels he does not have control. If he attends therapy, and we act in a way that mimics empathy, we allow him to believe we are listening, we understand, then provide him with the solution to his problem; he leaves feeling cheated and quite probably worse than before. In order to approach him with total empathy, we must listen to the client, understand the client, feel his emotions and experience, understand his situation, and lead him to the solution. By giving him control, he is able to build confidence in himself. This sort of approach instills the client with a sense of ability, and to an extent a sense of pride. It is a way of building up his character, to allow him to believe in himself, and to feel capable in every situation.

Rogers’ states that the most helpful form of empathy, is listening to the clients emotions and feelings behind his words (1974). Throughout the course of therapy, the client may not mention how they are feeling; it is the therapists’ role to determine the feelings behind his words. By understanding the feelings, and not simply listening to the words, the therapist is better able to understand the clients’ situation, and the client is able to put more trust in the therapist.

Empathy is an essential component of successful therapy, and its absence can damage the clients’ success. The client must feel the therapist is being empathetic, in order for it to play its role. If the client is unable to feel the therapist being empathetic, it is quite likely the therapist actually is not being empathetic.

The concept of empathy is not a novel idea by any means, but Rogers’ teachings and demonstrations have shown the importance and necessity of empathy in therapy. This contribution continues to be felt in psychotherapy, as well as other related fields such as counseling, education, and medicine. Surely, the best way to reach your students is to understand them, and the best way to treat your medical patients is to understand what mental processes may be underlying their somatic symptoms. Should it be found that your patient is stressed, it may aid in diagnosing their ailment, and there is no better way to determine your patient is stressed than to listen to them. The presentation of their symptoms may even fade or decrease, if we approach it with the understanding of catharsis by expressing the underlying emotions that are causing the somatic symptoms, the symptoms may decrease.

Empathy is so much more than listening; it goes above and beyond finding a solution. It offers the client to feel control, trust, and reliance on others, which all play a significant role in successful therapy, and in everyday life.

 

 

References:

American Personnel and Guidance Association. (1974). Carl Rogers’s 1974 lecture on empathy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMi7uY83z-U&feature=share&list=PL9w3l7GkGUr1yxU4s2PiggyCbOO3XfpRf

Empathy. (n.d). In Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy

Rogers, Carl. (1951). Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. London: Constable

 

Graduation: An End to Education; An End to Self-Development

Graduation is seen as a mark of success. After spending four years in an educational institution, aiming towards a goal (the acquisition of a degree), you attain your goal, your marks are finalized, and you walk across the stage and are handed your degree. This is undoubtedly a mark of success, but it is also for many, the beginning of their stagnation.

Those who embark on an educational journey do so with more in mind than intellectual development – they are thinking of the friendships they will form, the new and exciting experiences they will have in a new city, and they are thinking especially of freedom – the freedom to do whatsoever they wish without the watchful eye of their parents. These things combine to make the educational experience one that will not be forgotten, and one to which they will refer to for years to come. So in a sense, graduation is a success, but it is a bittersweet success. On one hand, they have completed their goal, but on the other hand, they are leaving behind their golden years. For the past four years, they have developed the self, centering on their educational self. The educational self is one that develops, or flourishes, in a post-secondary educational setting, away from parental influence. Typically this self is one of two things: 1.) a studious, organized, and highly success oriented student type, or 2.) a relaxed, uninhibited, adventure and excitement seeking party type. These two selves do not necessarily run parallel to each other, that is, there may be some overlap, indeed there must be for humans are not one-dimensional creatures. We are multi-faceted and although Susan may prefer to stay in and study on a Friday night, she may still feel inclined to go out one night and celebrate a successful exam period. That being said, individuals typically lean more to one type than the other, with some overlap. For instance, type 1 will be more studious and success oriented than type 2, but they will still drink, and party with their friends, whereas type 2 may be more inclined to drink and party, but that does not mean they will shirk their school duties altogether – they just may not put as much effort or care into their work.

This self is formed and cemented into the individuals’ complete understanding of the self; it may even contribute to their understanding of their self in relation to self-actualization. Recall that self-actualization is the fulfillment of the self’s capabilities. Achieving academic success plays a large role in self-actualization; however, at the time we graduate we are not, in fact, self-actualized. Consider a young woman who achieves a degree in environmental law, would she consider herself fully actualized, entirely fulfilled, simply by receipt of the degree? Certainly not, she would wish to find a suitable career in her field. What would happen if she was to land a law career, but it was not environmental law? Would she be just as fulfilled with this career, as she would be in an environmental position –quite probably not. We fulfill our need and thirst for knowledge through our educational journey, but we must do something with the degree once we have graduated in order to give it any weight. This is one thing many fail to do, whether this is intentional or unintentional, the effect is the similar.

The reason I say the effect is similar and not the same, is because for those who intentionally choose not to use their degree, or choose not to further advance themselves in their area of specialization, make this decision consciously. They have control over their decision, and perhaps they have changed their interests, they have discovered that they are no longer interested in the field, or are no longer suited for it. This involves introspection, and self-assessment, which in and of itself is self-development (change is a big part of development, otherwise, we would stagnate and our selves would die). Those who happen not to use their degree tend to cling to their golden years in a more neurotic way. Whether they are unable to use the degree because there are no careers available, or they simply do not meet qualifications, these roadblocks are not decided upon by them. The decision has been made for them, and they must deal with the decision or make a change. The change that needs to occur can only come from introspection; the individual must re-assess the current formulation of self, and see whether “environmental lawyer” is a significant part of their understanding of their self. Will it cause so much dissonance as to spur on a psychotic episode? If the answer is yes, then the individual must determine what changes need to be made – should they return to an educational institution for further training and education in the area of specialization? Or should they abandon the idea of ever becoming an environmental lawyer and form a new concept? For some this conception of the self may be difficult to grasp. We are led to believe that the self is cemented in us, that there can be no change when in fact the opposite is true. We are the rulers of our selves; we are in control of who we are. There are certainly environmental and biological factors contributing to our conception of the self, but in the end we are in complete control of who we choose to be.[1]

This is where the issue arises. Those who graduate and fail to continue their educational process, or continue their career in their field of choice, begin to stagnate. They have achieved success, and their self begins to slowly deteriorate. The experiences they had while at university become an overwhelming component of who they are as individuals, which in and of itself is not a negative thing, the issues lies in the fact that this is the only contributing factor to their sense of self. Upon graduating, they carry their educational self with them wherever they go. For those who are type 2 it is more damaging, because such behaviour is far less acceptable in a professional setting (recall we mentioned there is overlap between type 1 and type 2 of the educational selves, however in large part there are more leanings to either or). They carry their memories of their golden years and rely on these events to continue to define who they are years later. That is not to say we should forget our past selves, or forget the events that happened while we were young and experiencing so many new things at once; we should however, not rely on these things to define who we are now many years after graduation.

It is understandably difficult to let go of the past, particularly in a time of over-stimulation. Our university careers are filled with novel situations and sensations occurring almost simultaneously. This can arouse a number of new feelings within us, including the sensations of success, acceptance, love, and companionship. We experience new friends and relationships we would not have otherwise. We experience a wealth of knowledge, that at times may be difficult to digest completely, and we do this all with the belief that we are completely in control of our own lives. We believe we are able to manage our selves – we play adult while we are still children. All of these sensations offer a somewhat romanticized ideal of our educational experience, even as we live it. To leave this, to leave this safe-haven of lectures, of learning to navigate a new city, and of meeting new and interesting individuals, would be foolish. At the end of our journey, we walk across a stage in front of all of our peers to demonstrate our success. But along with our success comes a sorrowful goodbye that we may not be ready for. For when we enter into our post-secondary institution we are but children, and when we leave it we are children still, just four years older. We have been coddled; we have been swaddled and protected from the harsh realities of the world. So we cling to our successes in a time where things may have been easier, and we continue to romanticize our educational journey.

So we cease to develop ourselves, because if we develop ourselves further, we will grow further and further away from this ideal lifestyle. But this is not the answer, a graduation should not mark the end – it should mark the beginning of a lifelong learning process, and through that, a lifelong development process. That is not to say that we are only able to develop our selves through education, or through higher learning centers, but we are only able to develop our selves through challenges, and through change. Instead of allowing our selves to relive the golden years in such a way as to prove to those around us, and ourselves, that we are still who we were twenty years ago, we should discover new intellectual development opportunities, and discover new artistic and creative endeavors to venture out on. The self flourishes best when it is challenged, and tested, and given the opportunity to achieve self-actualization.

[1]
This is not referring to things such as temperament or disposition, things in which we may have less control over. It is true, we may be more prone to feelings of contentedness thanks to our biological factors, or we may be more prone to alcoholism, but these are not by and large what defines our self. Similarly, our emotionality is not what makes us who we are; it is simply a small part in the larger whole.

 

 

Inside: Jerome Kagan

Dr. Kagan is a renowned developmental Psychologist and a key pioneer in the development of that field. He is professor Emeritus at Harvard University, and is most famous for his research on child temperament. What follows is a brief interview conducted by myself, Taylor Bourassa, with Dr. Jerome Kagan.

Q: What would you say was the catalyst that drew you to Psychology, particularly developmental Psychology?

A: My attraction to developmental psychology in 1954, when I made my career choice, was the belief, which was popular at the time, that   the experiences of children during the first few years shaped future development. Discovery of these cause –effect relations would allow psychologists to inform parents of the proper behaviors. As a result, it was assumed that crime, psychosis, addiction, and other social ills would be reduced. Few believe that optimistic premise today, but many did in 1954.

 Q: Who would you cite as your intellectual influences? This does not have to be limited to those within the field of Psychology.

A: Several people influenced my ideas. My mentor at Yale, Frank Beach, affirmed my personal preference for discovery of nature’s secrets, as opposed to affirming abstract a priori hypotheses.   Bohr’s idea of complementarity and the principle that the meaning and validity of every conclusion depend on the source of evidence have had a profound effect on my thought. I have also been influenced by the many historians I have read. Their books taught me that historical events have a more serious effect on the psychology of individuals than most social scientists are willing to admit.

Q: You have completed a great amount of research in the field of developmental Psychology – is there any other stream that has or continues to peak your interest?

A: I continue to read genetics and history for both play important roles in the psychology of the person.

Q: You have a great many publications, including such works as “Growth of the Child”, and “Birth to Maturity”, which would you say you enjoyed writing, and researching for the most?

A: Because “Birth to Maturity” was my first major book and the project that led to the book my initial major investigation, I naturally hold a sentimental feeling for that text and the work that preceded it. I am proud of “ The Long Shadow of Temperament”, written with Nancy Snidman, because it summarized many years of research on the infant temperamental biases we called high and low reactive. I learned a great deal by writing “ The Three Cultures” because I had to read deeply in economics and the humanities.

Q: In the 1970s you conducted research with colleagues on daycare, where you created a daycare of your own, and compared the infants who attended said daycare to those who stayed at home with their mothers. Could you elaborate on the procedure, ie: what the structure of the daycare was, what sorts of activities were provided for the children. What was your inspiration for conducting this research? Do you think if the same study were conducted now, 40 years later, similar results would be shown?

 A: The day care study, with Richard Kearsley and Philip Zelazo, was motivated by the historical moment. The Congress was considering sponsoring federal day care centers in the early 1970s because more mothers were working. Many psychologists, including me, were concerned about the consequences of day care on young infants. So NIH gave us a grant to assess the effects of day care on infants from 3 to 29 months of age. We established our own center in the South End of Boston in a working class neighborhood and recruited both European-Caucasian as well as Chinese-American families. The staff played with the infants and provided appropriate cognitive stimulation. A matched control group was reared at home.

We were convinced that we had to assess many infant behaviors directly, rather than rely on maternal reports as the bases for evidence. We also believed that the infant’s response to violations of discrepancy was an important trait. Hence, we devised many procedures to evaluate this property and we coded both behaviors as well as heart rate changes to the violations. Our surprise was discovering that at 29 months there were minimal differences between the infants in our center and those raised at home, but the Chinese and Caucasian infants differed in many traits. That discovery motivated me to study temperament. I believe that if the same study were repeated today the same basic results would be found.

 Q: With the recent advances in, and research on, early childhood education, there have been varying views and arguments regarding its efficacy and necessity. I would like to get your point of view on the impact early childhood education programs have on a child’s development.

A: The results of the many intervention efforts with young children have been less effective than many hoped. Ken Dodge has pointed out that one reason for this fact is that the contexts in which the children lived and acted (classroom, playground, evening meal, with peers in groups) were not the contexts in which most of the interventions were implemented. Behaviors are affected by the local context! A child is more likely to hit a peer on the playground than when interacting with a stranger trying to teach them to read or control impulse. In addition, it was a bit naive to assume that 6 to 12 months of intervention experience (usually less than a few hours a week) could offset the effects of home and neighborhood experiences. Finally, it has proven difficult to change the practices of poor or minority parents if they have little faith in the premise that what they do will have a serious effect on their child. As a result, most of the programs that have been reported have had minimal long term effects on a majority of children. We need different kinds of interventions and have to assess a parent’s willingness and receptivity to change.

 Q: In “A history in Psychology” you show that cognitive growth is malleable. In recent years the concept of neuroplasticity has become more and more popular- do you agree that our brains remain malleable throughout development, well into adulthood? If this is true, based on your studies in temperament, what would be your take on the idea that adults can alter their temperament?

A: Yes, the brain and behaviors are malleable, especially during the first decade. A temperamental bias for cautious, timid behavior can be changed easily, but that does not mean that the neurobiology that is the basis of the bias is equally malleable. Our results show that many of the children who had been shy, fearful two-year-olds but became sociable, non-timid adults retained the neurophysiology of their initial temperamental bias. The behavioral phenotype can change without a comparable change in the biology. A person with the genes for diabetes can avoid the symptoms by the proper diet even though he or she possesses the risk genes.

 Q: What changes have you seen in the study of developmental Psychology from the time you began your career to the present day?

A: The main changes in developmental psychology over the past 60 years include a keen interest in the cognitive capacities of infants that are more complex than perception, studies of the consequences of the attachment bond of infants, concern with executive processes and regulation in older children, and measuring relations between brain states and behavior.

 Thank you for answering my questions Dr. Kagan, and I have one more question for you. If there would be one piece of advice or suggestion you could give to aspiring or new Psychologists, what would it be?

A: My advice to the next cohort of psychologists is to be bolder and address more significant problems. Three such questions in developmental psychology are:

  1. How do the experiences of children from advantaged versus disadvantaged homes affect their development? This requires direct observations over time rather than verbal reports of parents. A child’s social class remains the best predictor of the risk for a mental illness, incarceration, and a metabolic illness.
  2. Development of procedures that measure a child’s identifications with family, class, ethnicity, and religion. These identifications have profound effect but we do not have methods to measure them with accuracy.
  3. Initiate studies of the large number of infant temperamental biases by observing infants directly, gathering biological data, and following the children for at least 10 years.

Walden III

“I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I had not lived” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden).

            Humans need to feel rooted; they need to feel a connection to something in order to give their life meaning. Currently, our lives are rooted in consumerism. We define ourselves by the things we buy, and we base our happiness and success on our things. We often find ourselves in a constant cycle of competition with our neighbours, aiming to prove how better off we are, based entirely on our things, we even go so far as to feel badly for those who we deem as less fortunate than us, due to their lack of things. We have cut ourselves off from society in that we no longer allow ourselves to feel connected to one another as anything more than a means to an end. It can be difficult to escape this consumerist society, and to combat these ideals with healthier ways of defining our selves.

One way to escape this unhealthy lifestyle is to delve into the forest. Through this adventure we will find we need human connection, but we will undoubtedly find we need a deeper sort of connection than the one we are currently espousing. Escaping to the forest offers us a number of lasting benefits that we may not find elsewhere. There are 3 in particular we should focus on and those are: alleviation of stress, fulfillment of needs, and a clear path to self-actualization.

Alleviation of Stress

The first benefit to consider is the simplest, and will be felt most readily upon entering the forest. Responsibilities and pressures within society surround us and we are bound by these responsibilities. By abandoning these responsibilities for a few days at a time, we also abandon the stress that comes along with them. In the forest we are not divided by our careers, our sexes, or our race. Upon entering the forest it is no longer necessary for us to uphold these roles, it is no longer necessary for us to act in certain ways to appease society. I will speak briefly about cognitive dissonance that may be caused by these roles before continuing on to how our escape may help alleviate stress.

In society we all play a role, which is typically tied to one or another characteristic of our self – such as being a woman, being homosexual, or being a teacher. These roles give us guidelines for how to behave in social situations. Although some of these are conscious and very real to us, a number of them are unconscious experiences. For instance, with being a woman come a number of social pressures and norms, such as the need to be more passive than aggressive, or the need to shave to be considered feminine. These norms are not necessarily overt, and some women may not even be consciously aware of them, however, when we do not abide by these social norms we may feel negatively about ourselves, we may find ourselves feeling “less feminine” than we normally would. This can cause a slight dissonance between how we perceive ourselves and how society perceives us. We are urged to act a certain way, fit into a specific role, and when we fail to abide by this we find a divide, a crack between some very fundamental aspects of our being. This dissonance can cause great stress – we may find ourselves wearing masks while at work, at social functions, even with family – these masks need to be cast aside in order to fill the cracks that exist between our selves, thus escaping and leaving our responsibilities, and these masks, behind.

By leaving these masks behind, we alleviate the stress on our psyches caused by this dissonance. We are no longer required to wear these masks, and we are able to be, fully, our selves. This allows us to focus on more important aspects of life, and to fulfill our most essential needs.

Simply being in nature alleviates stress, particularly through exposure to the sun, and the aesthetic of nature. The sun aids in moderating mood through the release of serotonin (Nall, 2015), and it also helps with vitamin-D levels, which of course, is important for proper bone health (Nall, 2015). Physical health and mental health are correlated, and when we are mentally unhealthy, our bodies typically mirror this, and vice versa (Doidge, 2015). Oxygen is necessary for proper brain health, and the best way to get oxygen is to be surrounded by greenery, which as we know, is abundant in the forest. The aesthetic appeal of nature helps alleviate stress because it re-directs our mood by its sheer beauty. It is difficult to be surrounded by nature and not be completely awe-struck. When we are awe-struck, we are no longer focused on the stresses we find deep within us, there is no cause to be.

Fulfillment of needs

Alongside the alleviation of stress we have the fulfillment of needs, which can be argued as the most important aspect of this entire adventure, because by fulfilling our needs we have laid the groundwork for our pursuit of self-actualization. The needs we fulfill are as follows: our need for inner peace, our need to self-actualize, our need for connectivity and our need for rootedness.

Our need for inner peace comes along with our decrease in stress, and the elimination of our masks. By putting aside pretenses, we bear our souls to the world around us, and with no one there to watch we have no fear of judgment or ridicule. Our minds become clearer, and we are able to introspect. By stripping ourselves bare we are able to see inside ourselves, and understand on a deeper level who we are, and what makes us, us. This, in combination with the simplicity of the forest, offers us peace. This need ties very closely to our need for connectivity and our need for rootedness. I mentioned before that we would discover throughout this adventure that we do need human interaction; we need to feel a sense of connectivity between others and ourselves. However, this is difficult in our society, a society where we put things above others, and treat others as means to an end instead of as human beings. First, we must fulfill our need for connectivity in an environment from which we came, that is, the forest. The forest is the most rudimentary aspect of our existence, we rely on it for our survival yet fear it to a degree, and so we shun from it. Instead, we should be embracing it and treating it for what it is – our source of life. Without the environment, we would not be able to survive naturally. By fulfilling our need for connectivity with the environment first, we may be better equipped to approach each new human interaction as an interpersonal relation, and not a means-end exchange.

This need for connectivity is necessary for our intrapersonal relations as well. By appreciating the simple and natural things in life, we become better equipped to feel connected with ourselves. This may sound strange; you may be asking yourself “how or why would I need to feel connected with myself”? It’s a fair question, and the simplest answer I can offer is to avoid dissonance. By feeling connected with ourselves, through introspection and understanding ourselves, we avoid the dissonance between who we perceive ourselves to be and who we really are.

Erich Fromm postulated 8 basic human needs, one of which was our need for rootedness (Fromm, 1997) – that is, to create roots in the world outside of our mother. This can be fulfilled through marriage, following a career path you are passionate about, or a number of other things. It is sometimes difficult, however, to fulfill this need no matter how basic or simple it may seem. Sometimes, we choose a career that we believe we are passionate about, but it turns out we have chosen it to prove something to someone, or we were pushed into it and told ourselves as we began to study that we truly were passionate about it, creating false memories. This is why escaping to nature is the best way to fulfill this need. We fulfill it by understanding where we come from, and appreciating how we came to be. We appreciate the absolute power nature has, and we appreciate the life and death forces within nature. It helps us to understand our place in the greater scheme of things and it humbles us. By fulfilling our need for rootedness in nature, we recognize that no matter what it is we do, no matter where we decide to plant our roots we will in fact, always be tethered to our environment, and we may always rely on it. It is interesting to note, that the earth and the environment have often been referred to as mother earth or Mother Nature and when we find ourselves needing to establish roots outside of our biological mothers, the most obvious place to root ourselves to is mother earth.

            All three of these needs are essential for our final need, which is our need for self-actualization, which leads to my final point.

Creating a clear path to self-actualization

            Self-actualization is hard for many, either because they do not understand what self-actualization is, do not have the means to self-actualize, or have never thought much about it. Self-actualization comes from humanism, Maslow placed it at the top of his hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1954), and Rogers defined it as fulfilling the innermost capacities, and congruence between the perceived and ideal self (Rogers, 1961). This may be a lifelong process, and is not as simple as fulfilling our simple needs. One must work at self-actualization daily, and it can often be hard because life, duties and circumstances arise which create a sort of barrier around the goal, making it near impossible to fulfill. When I say some may not have the means to self-actualize, I am referring specifically to their ability to introspect, which is often a result of environmental factors. If a person is starving, or homeless, they are far less likely to be thinking about self-actualization than about eating a hot meal, or getting a good night’s rest.

The reason it becomes easier for us to self-actualize while on this adventure is because we have no distractions, and we have all our base needs met (referring in particular to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). If we have achieved inner peace, cleared our minds, allowed our masks to fade away and de-stressed, then we are able to focus on self-actualization, and are much more likely to fulfill this need throughout our life (one should not expect to achieve self-actualization overnight, it is a very tenuous, often lifelong process).

What may the significance of all of this be? Would it not be simpler to continue living our lives consuming more and more, destroying the foundation of our existence through our waste, and retreating into ourselves more each day? Some may agree, that it would be simpler, but I am afraid that lifestyle is not very fulfilling. All I know is there is no better feeling than waking in the morning to the smell of pine, and falling asleep at night with stars visible in the sky.

 

Doidge, N. (2015). The Brain’s Way of Healing. New York: Viking.

Fromm, Erich. (1997). On Being Human. London: Continuum.

Maslow, Abraham. (1954). Motivation and Personality. Harper & Row, publishers.

Nall, R. (2015). What are the benefits of sunlight? http://www.healthline.com/health/depression/benefits-sunlight#Overview1

Rogers, Carl. (1961). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. London: Constable. ISBN 1-84529-057-7

Thoreau, Henry David. (1971). Walden, Or Life in the Woods. Princeton University Press. (Originally published 1854).