Tag Archives: psychology

A right versus left brain argument

 

If you want to know how this will relate to Tommy (as surely all things do!), scroll down if you’re feeling impatient. It’s unclear if that’s either a right brain or left brain quality—impatience, I mean. Indeed, wouldn’t it be ironic if assessment of binaries was neither a left brain nor right brain faculty?

The following rumination was triggered by an argument relayed by a man who likely identifies as a right-brain dominant individual. He is disinclined towards categories, which is a right-brain characteristic…I think. He didn’t know about these sorts of things, so he was nonplussed and on the back foot when pressed by his wife to make sense of things they were discussing. She, the presumptively more intuitive, empathetic and therefore right-brain person (so she asserted), bristled at his description of her as…well, he couldn’t remember what he’d specifically said about her. That became the core of their debate: he couldn’t give examples to substantiate his claims. He could relay his impressions, roughly, though his articulation let him down on the details. No matter, he thought, though the result was a conflict: something he’d wanted to avoid.

The semi-meaningful anecdote was parked in working, as in retrievable memory while a conversation moved on between men to a discussion of right and left brain thinking. My right brain observed that one man became a bit haughty as he outlined the differences between the functions of the right and left hemispheres. In his commentary, this man seemed to emphasize the qualities of the human left brain, which he seemed to think holds a privileged position in society, and is thus ripe for a right brain revolution. Interestingly, I can’t recall how he characterized right brain functioning, just that it’s more important for social discourse in the 21st century. About left brain functioning, he was succinct: “It’s about rules. The left brain is all about rules.” And rules, he further implied (exercising a right brain function, I think), are a problem: they foster rigidity and limited imagination and are likely ruining the world.

Something like my imagination stirred on this subject over the following hours or days—autobiographical or linear memory is probably a left brain function, and not one of my stronger qualities. Anyway, I was dissatisfied with this “rules” explanation of mental functioning, thinking it either verbose, imprecise, or too grey area and therefore right-brained in its perspective. The conflict relayed by our mutual friend came back to me, retrieved from some mental pocket, as my right brain intuited relevance. So, in our next conversation, I referenced that man/wife, vaguely gender-stereotyped debate of theirs and asked of my gently haughty friend the following: “when she challenged him to give concrete examples of the negative trait that none of us can remember, she was asking for concreteness, and thus imposing a rule”. My friend cautiously agreed but seemed to wait for more. “But the rule she imposed was tacit: if you’re going to make a generalization, you must substantiate, otherwise the impressions are not valid. Right?” I had sought validation. My friend faintly nodded, giving little. Still, I continued: “But that begs another observation: what if the application of tacit rules is a right-brain function, because it requires an intuitive sense to perceive the rule that is not explicitly declared. Therefore, it’s insufficient to say the left brain is all about rules”. This elicited a chuckle from everyone listening, which meant they agreed with me…I think with more of my right brain. Probably.

Wait, I remember: I was supposed to relate all of this back to Tommy—not because that was a rule per se—but rather because I’d promised that I would, which implied another rule that seems to cut across societies: follow through on what you promise. So, I think I had a further statement to make about how right versus left brain functioning is depicted in Tommy, perhaps with respect to the lyrics versus music dialectic in my book, which is about how words convey some of the story but the music carries the weight of the deaf, dumb and blind boy’s implicit message—that sort of thing. There was something else I think about Tommy that was relevant to this weird essay about right and left brain functioning, explicit and implicit memory. Something happened that, like the argument between my friend and his wife, stirred associations that were perhaps blocked for reasons unknown. It’s in my mind somewhere, parked in my senses amid other things gained and lost. I’ll go quiet about it for a while, wonder if it’s dangerous to write or speak about. Maybe something will happen later, stir me to greater freedom.

 

 

 

 

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The things not yet said about Tommy

And there are some things still unsaid, believe it or not. So, in the aftermath of my book’s publication (The Psychology of Tommy) plus the satisfaction of receiving a good review in Kirkus magazine (made their Indie books of the month list for June—yea!), I’ve decided to provide a summary of the book’s psychological theories as they relate to the opera. This idea stems largely from the comments of my Kirkus reviewer, who admired the overall flavor of my book, the quality of the prose, as well as some of my ideas about The Who, but clearly felt lost with respect the psychoanalytic theory that inhabits the book’s center. This was to be somewhat expected as the reviewer is a literary critic, not a psychologist, but what may be deemed “minutia” or “esoteric” needn’t be so intimidating to the average reader. But the material should nonetheless be important to an interested reader, for in my opinion, if you’re a fan of Tommy and you’re not interested in its psychological themes, then you’re not really a fan of Tommy. Therefore, without detailing (yet again) the entire plot of Tommy, here are the main theoretical points of the text, uniquely applied to the rock opera, as in not previously explained either by an artist, music critic or any social science observer.

  1. Firstly, whenever commentators casually observe themes in Tommy, they tend to notice something relating to Narcissism, either because of the ubiquitous presence of mirrors, or else because of the protagonist’s introversion. Narcissism is a concept that is much diluted by popular opinion and lay definitions. In the book I point out that while Tommy is given to spells of grandiosity as a young adult, he is not exploitative or unempathetic as a character, contrary to what is commonly observed in Narcissistic personalities. His earlier self-absorption is more Schizoid or trauma-based in its quality and his Narcissistic wound is comprised of repeatedly pronounced and frustrated needs: to be seen, to be heard, to be touched.
  2. Secondly—also important—Tommy is not autistic, nor is the opera an allusion to autism, and this is not a matter of dismissing a speculative diagnosis based upon developmental material that simply isn’t provided. Tommy is not autistic because that is a neurological deficit that is biologically-based, and Tommy’s psychosomatic affliction is clearly linked to the prohibitions expressed in the song “1921”: you didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it, you won’t say nothing…
  3. Next, continuing the repression theme, I observe that Tommy exudes mythic status, recalling at least two classic literary myths that are embedded in the collective unconscious: Hamlet and Oedipus Rex. The essence of Hamlet is perhaps less famously downloaded as an explanation of the human mind, but in my text I argue that Tommy’s dramatic crisis is similar to that of the Danish prince. He has been traumatized by the loss and then return of his father, plus an inexplicable crime that follows, and in addition, he is told that he must deny the senses that witnessed this event (or intuits it), hence the deaf, dumb, and blind condition, plus a generalized insecure attachment, exacerbated by an insecure narrative—the problem of secrets. How this dovetails with the Oedipus Rex myth pertains to the following devices: the condition of blindness as a metaphor for denial; Tommy’s thwarted sexuality (he is unseduced by the Acid Queen, and is benignly rejecting of Sally Simpson, a would-be partner); his compromised identification with patriarchs and male figures in general, because they are either absent (father), murderous (father), or abusive (uncle and cousin). His solution in the absence of earthly models is spiritual, though the opera at best implies that God, the ultimate patriarch, will not let the hero down. Repression, denial of sexuality, failure to integrate a Super-ego: three features that informed Freud’s theory of neurotic psychosexual development.
  4. And what of the Narcissism of matriarchs, you may wonder? Theoretical attention to this matter emerged less from Sigmund Freud than from Melanie Klein, the second most famous figure in the history of psychoanalysis and arguably the originator of modern Object Relations Theory (though the theory of objects—meaning caretaking other—being incorporated into ego is properly derived from Freud’s 1917 paper, “Mourning and Melancholia”). In Tommy, mirrors as physical objects are rivals to the boy’s mother, who exudes jealousy and ultimately rages at these symbols of her replacement. In her “smash the mirror” anger, she manifests a split-ego: on the one hand, behaving herself like an un-mirrored child; on the other hand, inhabiting the coercive role that her own caregivers once likely played. As a male, Tommy must go to extremes to separate from her, yet the positive turn in the opera lies in his yearning—at first internal and muted, and later explicit—which is best conveyed in the “Listening to You” passage that appears both halfway and at the end of the album. In all of the sources I’ve read about Tommy, no one has remarked on the likely meaning of the “You” that is indicated here: a fusion of self and other; a dyadic phenomenon of self that is forged by a dynamic with another. This is attachment theory’s prevailing notion of what is means to develop most plainly…a self. In my book, I further assert what Who fans might see coming if they read this: that Tommy’s story parallels what Townshend the songwriter, plus The Who as a group, attempted during their career, especially during their early halcyon days. Paraphrasing critic Dave Marsh, they sought to entertain and to express themselves, but more importantly, they sought to represent a complex, yearning and troubled audience.
  5. Repetition and trauma. The essence of this theme is that history repeats, especially painful events. This means that they re-occur and that history is therefore cyclic and not linear, as humans often prefer to believe (progress!). It means that we feel compelled to repeat, or to re-experience (the parlance of trauma) so as to maintain attachment, versus remembering symbolically (in psychoanalysis, symbols mean words). So Tommy doesn’t remember his past, just as Pete Townshend, The Who and their audience struggled to remember their pasts, though they may have been obsessed with the past (think of the line, “the past is calling…” from an ethereal passage in the later Quadrophenia). Tommy re-enacts, plays games, finds pain and joy and then pain again upon an inner journey. In this way, he is liberated from pain but old residues linger, leading him to repeat forebears’ mistakes: he is naïve with his dreams, expects too much, is didactic and bossy when his followers won’t play his way. This climaxes in a revolt, though the denouement is a peaceful, disappointment-containing and sober end.
  6. The last psychological theme to explain from my book is that of implicit memory and fragmented, pre-verbal unconsciousness. For those concerned with narrative drama, the supposed flaws in Tommy lie in its thin storyline and vagueness. I argue that whether intended or not, the incomplete expressions in the opera reflect the dissociated mind of the protagonist, which allows for a similarly unconscious experience in the listener—a kind of absorption into experience that an analyst named Wilfried Bion wrote might occur between analysts and patients. The best example of this fragmented yet evocative expression again lies within the song “1921”, in which the implied crime that ignites Tommy’s deficit condition is repeatedly and exclusively referred to as “it”. Tommy was born amidst war, like the Mods of West London and The Who were born amidst war. What they saw and heard will have been unfathomable once, and what may have been fleetingly clear may have been censored. Meanwhile, what they felt was vibration and noise, and what they later did with that was rock and roll.

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Graeme presents Tommy in Santa Fe…at last

From August, 2017, this presentation was part two of a project that culminated in my book, The Psychology of Tommy, published in May.

 

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Who Cares

 

Been gone from this for a while. Several reasons: I wrote two blog articles for psychecentral.com, both of which called for some extra time and attention. Next, I’ve thought to give Blended some time to breathe—that is, to let the six or so entries devoted to it a chance to sink in. Fat chance, I think sourly, which leads me to the most personal reason for my absence: a certain discouragement and torpor. Nothing special, just the standard writer’s self-importance, feelings of petulance…immaturity.

Another priority was the preparation for January 4th, my latest chance to talk Tommy before an audience. I’d been wanting to present at Mechanics’ Institute (MI) in San Francisco for ages, and I said as much at the outset of my talk. Thursday night I had my moment before an eager crowd of sixty, there because of MI’s capable marketing team. I got paid nothing for my time and labor. That’s what I’ll say if the tax or music copyright watchdogs ever ask, and the truth is I’m not doing it for the money. The reason I talk is the reason I write. I want someone to hear me. I want an audience.

“Are you ready to rock?” exhorted my host, the activities director at MI. She’s a nice woman, supportive and interested. More than myself, even, she’d observed the potential for a discussion about The Who’s Tommy to bring out the fans amongst the MI membership. Actually, I’m not sure how many in the crowd were MI members. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but I’m grateful someone knows what people want to hear. Anyway, six o’clock on Thursday rolled around. I knew my material, was ready to talk, and as I stood in the wings, waiting for the audience to take their seats, I felt close to stardom, I think. I almost noticed how it felt, rather like I did in Santa Fe in August. Then I began.

Fifteen minutes in, all was going well. My voice, ordinarily dry and halting when speaking to groups, felt limber and relaxed. I paced languidly before my audience, gazing out casually, leaving pauses for effect, breaking into a slight lilt when reciting pertinent song lyrics. I stared over heads a lot—a technique designed to limit distraction, preempt anxiety. I played one or two samples of songs from Tommy—did my arm-windmilling bit, aping Pete Townshend, The Who’s songwriter and creative engine. The darkened room at MI made eye contact difficult. The few pupils I did meet seemed attentive and expectant, yet respectfully patient. An hour ahead of a promised Q & A session, I sensed the gathering of opinion. There was a handful of voices in the audience ready to challenge, to question or to share. I had suggested such an exchange at the beginning, right after the host’s rockin’ announcement. These people at MI: they weren’t like the staid crowd at the Creativity and Madness Conference in Santa Fe. They might have known less about psychology than doctors or therapists. Indeed, they likely gave less than a shit about John Bowlby or Melanie Klein, or James Masterson and Allan Schore. But they did care about Tommy. They had a lot to say about The Who.

Some just wanted to share how they’d been at Woodstock, and watched in amused awe as Pete Townshend stuck his knee into Abbie Hoffman’s groin. A political comment, sort of. Another man chuckled as he relayed a Jimi Hendrix/Who anecdote. I played along, knowing it would be the infamous Monterey Pop episode wherein the two bands tossed a coin to see who would get to play first, blow hippie minds and make rock history destroying things. One is meant to guffaw in concert at these tall tales, finding humor in the macho interplay of legendary rock stars. Truth is, I find this kind of jocular reminiscing slightly painful. After all, what I’d shared was, as far as I was concerned, a rich, layered analysis of a celebrated pop icon, yet still the kind of treatment The Who had thus far been denied. I didn’t want to merely reminisce with fellow fans. I wanted to muse with them, bring a sense of historical texture, intellectual interest wrapped in love and passion. I wanted to spark thought on something they had enjoyed over time but not truly examined.

Thankfully, the storytellers weren’t the only faction in the audience. One or two had read Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am, and wanted me to speculate on how Tommy related to its author’s history of child abuse. Questions like this were a welcome challenge, but it was nothing compared to a penultimate query that has stuck with me since. Seated behind a man who had shared apocryphal stories about The Who’s early Mod days was a slender, brittle, middle-aged woman. Wearing a frown, she raised her arm, waited her turn, but upon being called, made a chiding comment that The Who were “a band for men”, and further offered that their love songs, few and far between as they were, seemed fraught with themes of abuse and exploitation. Punctuating this comment was a leading question directed at me: as a therapist, surely I thought (The Who) an unbalanced and harmful icon (something like that). Through the dim light, I looked into this woman’s angry eyes, saw the withering incomprehension of a staunch Beatles fan, a feminist revealing her barely male-tolerating ire. I didn’t want to answer her question per se. I wanted to spend another hour on the subject.

Collecting my thoughts, I noticed that we were towards the end. My host, the MI events organizer, might have glanced at her watch. I thought of “Sally Simpson”, a lesser famous song from Tommy that some critics abhor, for reasons I’ve never understood. The song is about a girl who falls in love with the guru-like Tommy character from afar, and gets hurt trying to touch him at a speaking event. Stood before the crowd at MI, with the seconds spinning by, I knew what I wanted to say at my slightly parallel event. I just had to organize myself. Moments later I was sharing an anecdote: a story about the inspiration for “Sally Simpson”; an incident in 1968 when The Who supported The Doors on tour, and Townshend witnessed the uber-petulant Jim Morrison kick a female fan in a melee. The incident sparked Pete’s sympathy, plus a memory, perhaps, of how he’d once envied the attention other bands (like The Beatles) garnered from screaming, clinging girls. The Who’s early songs were as female-bashing as anyone’s, I admitted on their behalf to that angry-looking woman in the MI crowd. But the following lyrics from “Sally Simpson” show what Tommy and great rock n’ roll are all about, ultimately:

She knew from the start

Deep down in her heart

That she and Tommy were worlds apart

But her mother said never mind, you’re part is to be what you’ll be

 

We grow up

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