Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Friday Rorschach: Stanley, The Cat

Portrait of Stanley, The Cat, 2013, tempera paint on paperboard

What it is: It is a cat. Specifically, it is a portrait of the family cat, Stanley. This is one of my daughter's paintings, and she was embarrassed by how it turned out, because she thought it looked like an owl. I, however, love its style. It is a very flat painting, and she mixed interesting colors. She also put a great deal of effort into Stanley's white fur, giving it great texture. She has a good sense of balance, which forces the viewer to look at the whole piece, not just the enormous white part of Stanley's body.

The real Stanley
The flatness of the painting (the lack of dimensionality) is what made me think this would be a good Friday Rorschach post. The background jumps into the foreground, and many of you incorporated it into your responses.

detail of Stanley's fur

What you thought it was: Most of you thought it was a bird of some sort:

A surprising number of you saw a chicken:

An even more surprising number of you saw this as a penguin:

Several of you saw this as a bird wearing clothes. On the Rorschach, this would be considered a troubling sign--when an animal is engaging in an activity that is impossible, it is usually a sign of psychosis or traumatic brain injury (Remember, don't diagnose yourself with anything based on what you saw in this picture. I saw a bird wearing a hat, and I am neither psychotic nor cognitively impaired, as far as I know):

One of the most common responses to this week's picture was negativity of emotion:

As always, there were the pop culture references:

A few of you saw something wrapped in a cocoon, as if for protection:

There was a lot of fire in this week's responses. In the Rorschach, fire responses are typically negative, as though the form is being destroyed. These responses, however, seem to be more of an indication that the black and orange paint in the lower right corner looks like a campfire:

There is always at least one Friday Rorschacher who uses the word obviously or clearly. As in, "it obviously looks like blah blah blah." On the Friday Rorschach, it is usedin a joking manner, because the Rorschacher's response is never very obvious.

On the real Rorschach, someone will make an obvious or clearly response every now and then, but he or she is usually not joking. And, the responses are never obvious or clear. They tend to be bizarre responses like, "It is obviously a penis with wings that has just exploded out of the window of Rapunzel's castle. Anyone could clearly see that."

A theme that crosses weeks in the Friday Rorschach is poop. People always see poop in these pictures:

And then there is this great psychology/owl joke (google John Bowlby for more information):

There is the reference to a swan, from a person with a swan for an avatar (what more could you expect?):

There is an Australian politician (I had to look this one up):

And, my personal favorite for the week:

What you might have missed: For me, the first image that popped into my head when I looked at this painting was an owl wearing a mortarboard. I mean, it was so obvious. Looking back on it, it might have been the 12 years I spent as a university professor...

Nevertheless, a few of you saw it too:

One last thought: Stanley is no longer with the Wachtel family. My wife and I had him before we had children. When our daughter was born, it turned out that she was horribly allergic to cats. I don't think she could breathe for the first three years of her life.

It was a tough decision, but we ended up giving Stanley away. My daughter almost immediately felt better (especially after a thorough house cleaning). But, the whole family missed the cat. So, we have the portrait of Stanley (the photo and now my daughter's painting) to remember him. And no one sneezes when we look at them.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday Rorschach is a fun project designed to engage readers' creativity. To participate, follow Max on twitter. He posts the drawing every Friday morning around 10am ET/8am MT. There are no wrong answers to the Friday Rorschach.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Factitious Disorder By Proxy: Colorado Woman Allegedly Fakes Her Son's Cancer And Raises $23,000

Sandy Nguyen, accused of felony theft after allegedly faking a cancer diagnosis in her son.

You may remember one of the "dead people" the boy in The Sixth Sense saw because of the horrible way she died. She was the little girl whose mother was secretly poisoning her.

Here is a YouTube clip from the movie where the girl's father discovers what his wife has been doing to their daughter:

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

This is a Hollywood dramatization, but it turns out that some people actually do that to their children. What used to be called Munchausen Disorder By Proxy is now referred to as Factitious Disorder By Proxy (or Factitious Disorder Imposed On Another).

It is a rare mental illness that causes a person to either intentionally sicken another person or to pretend that other person is sick. The perpetrator is almost always a mother and the victim is almost always her child.

In Denver last week, news broke of Sandy Nguyen, a woman who faked a cancer diagnosis for her six year-old son. She allegedly shaved his head every day, lied about his so-called medical procedures, and posted elaborate claims on Facebook about how stressful it was to raise a sick child.

Sandy Nguyen also allegedly raised around $23,000 for her son's supposed treatment costs. Eventually, her story unraveled and friends discovered she had been lying about her son's illness. She was arrested and is currently in jail on felony theft charges.

Here is a 9News story where Megan Fitzgerald interviews me about the situation:

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

Although it is likely Nguyen has a somatoform disorder such as Factitious Disorder By Proxy, she may actually be struggling with other issues. One of the hallmarks of Factitious Disorder is that the person's main motivation is to gain attention by being sick (or by taking care of someone who is sick). In order to qualify for the diagnosis, the person's motivation cannot be financial gain.

Clearly, Nguyen gained financially from faking her son's illness, although it is not known if that was her original intent. If she had planned all along to fake the illness to make money, she would probably meet the criteria for a different disorder such as Narcissism or Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Also, please note, I have never met Nguyen or her son, and I have not conducted a psychological evaluation of her. I am not giving her a formal diagnosis. But, there seems to be enough information in the public sphere at this point to make an educated guess.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Pop Psych Project: Distracted Driving: This Is Your Brain On Smartphones

If you see this kid on the road, jump out of the way.
In the last 24 hours, I asked Twitter the best way to convince people to stop using their smartphones while driving. I specifically asked people to be nice in their replies.

Here are my tweets:

I received some great responses, which I highlighted in a 9News article. The best replies had a combination of factual information and concern for safety. Here is an example of one of them (more are posted on the 9News website):

Psychologists know about convincing people to change their behavior--it is what we do for a living. When we do this, we understand it is important to highlight the reasons people need to change (and to do so nicely). In that vein, if you are attempting to convince a friend or family member to stop driving while distracted, here are some reasons you can give them (phrased nicely):

1. Driving while distracted impairs our senses just as much as drunk driving (one caveat: once you stop smartphoning, your faculties return immediately. When you stop drinking, you remain drunk for a while).

2. Reaction times for distracted drivers are at least 40% slower than nondistracted drivers. This number increases with people who are new to driving (i.e. teenagers).

3. Smartphoning while driving uses a high percentage of your "working memory" ability. This is like the RAM in your brain--you only have a certain capacity to juggle tasks. Just like your computer, when you have too many apps running at once, everything slows down.

4. Many drivers make mistakes when they are driving. Distracted drivers make the same types of mistakes that nondistracted drivers make, they just make A LOT more of them.

5. Your brain's electrical activity actually changes when you are distracted. Researchers have been able to blindly look at brain EEGs and determine which were from distracted drivers and which were from nondistracted drivers. So, if you are using your smartphone while driving, your brain is literally impaired.

6. Hands free phones are just as dangerous as holding the phone to your ear. This is a big one--that hands free Bluetooth in your car? You might as well be driving with a drink in your hand (see caveat from point #1).

If you don't believe me on point number 6, I don't blame you. It is hard to fathom. But, a study from February of 2013 demonstrated this phenomenon in startling terms. Using functional MRIs, these researchers determined that nondistracted drivers relied heavily on input from the occipital portion of their brain. This is the portion that controls our vision and interprets visual stimuli. But, distracted drivers (even those who were hands free) stopped using the visual portion of their brains. Instead, the prefrontal cortices of their brains lit up. This is the portion of the brain used for logical thinking and cognitive processing. The fMRI images from distracted drivers showed that they literally stopped seeing what was around them, even though they were free to move their heads wherever they wanted and had both hands on the wheel.

The prefrontal cortex is the front portion of the Frontal Lobe

So, if you try to convince a loved one to stop driving while distracted, be nice about it. And, use the tips above to provide them with some good reasons why they need to change their behavior.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Friday Rorschach: The Death Of Winter

The Death of Winter, 2013, watercolor on paper

I thought this would be a good painting to use for this week's Friday Rorschach. To me, I see it as a celebration of the last week of winter. In many ways this has been a great winter for me and my family. The Colorado mountains have had a ton of snow, skiing/snowboarding has been great (despite my broken collarbone), and we don't have to worry about a drought in this part of the country this summer.

For the rest of you, I have two words of sympathy: Polar Vortex.

What it is: This is one of my son's paintings. Obviously, it is a snowman. But, it is a fairly disturbing one, don't you think? What you can't tell from the photograph is that it is huge. He found the world's largest piece of paper and created this snowman. He painted it around Christmas, and he insisted that we hang it up. I still have nightmares sometimes.

My son was very clear that this snowman was not sinister and was not harmed in any way. All of the red splotches are supposed to be decorations, despite the fact that it looks like he was hit with a machine gun. He considered it to be a sweet, innocent picture of a happy snowman.

This painting has a strong form demand, and most of you saw it as a snowman of one sort or another. What interested me most about the painting was the obvious (and unconscious) violence and aggression.

In Rorschach terms, this would be described as a "morbid" painting--one that depicts a form that has been ruined or mutilated in some manner. When people see morbid images on the Rorschach, it can be indicative of depression or feelings of failure and low self-worth. Interestingly, kids see more morbid content in the Rorschach than adults do.

In the case of The Death Of Winter, I fully expected morbid responses from everyone, regardless of a person's level of depression or self-worth.

What you thought it was: You did not disappoint this week. Most of your responses fell into one of two morbid categories.

The first common category was snowman who has been harmed in some way:

The second common category was snowman who harms in some way:

Regardless, several of you were immediately and viscerally disturbed by the image:

At least one of you expressed concern for the wellbeing of my family (which I appreciate...we keep knives away from our son):

What I found interesting is that several of you decided to overlook the overtly morbid content (on the Rorschach, this might be interpreted as problematic, as though you avoid the obvious negative aspects of life. In my mind, though, I think you were trying to see the good in the world, which I think is good):

A few of you had hybrid responses, depicting a happy snowman where something only mildly bad has happened:

Many of you saw this as a paintball incident (is this because of the splatter of the paint, or is it because you can't take the idea of Frosty being mortally wounded?):

A few of you saw snow-women, not snowmen:

As always, there were the awesomely nerdy responses:

There were those of you who are totally sick of winter:

And my personal favorite (because I imagine this was probably the worst prom since Carrie):

What you might have missed: Only one person incorporated the red line in the top left portion of the painting. To me, it looks like a paintbrush. But, what could the paintbrush possibly mean?

Enlarged version of the
paintbrush in the top left

One last thought: One Friday Rorschacher came up with an interesting theory about the paintbrush. She thought it represented the idea that this was not really a snowman. Instead, it is an abstraction of a bloody snowman. Maybe a nightmare? Maybe a child's fear that paradise many someday be lost? Or the premonition of the loss of innocence--an unconscious knowledge of the harshness of the world that is to come?

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday Rorschach is a fun project designed to engage readers' creativity. To participate, follow Max on twitter. He posts the drawing every Friday morning around 10am ET/8am MT. There are no wrong answers to the Friday Rorschach.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Pop Psych Project: The Strange Case of Word Salad

I asked you for words on Twitter yesterday.
This is what you came up with.
If you've ever had a moment where a word is on the tip of your tongue but you cannot say it, you have experienced a form of aphasia. Those brief moments can be frustrating--you are staring at the cup, you know what the cup is, you want someone to pass you the cup. But, you cannot get the word cup to come out of your mouth. Eventually, you point, grunt, throw something at your kid, and the cup gets passed to you.

Now, imagine having a permanent condition that keeps you from being able to fully express yourself, despite knowing exactly what you want. That, in a nutshell, is aphasia.

There are several different types of aphasia, and most of them are caused by damage to the particular regions of the brain that control speech. The left frontotemporal regions of the brain control both receptive and expressive speech. The receptive speech area allows you to understand verbal communication, and the expressive speech area helps you speak.

Broca's Area helps you speak. Wernicke's
Area helps you understand speech.

If you have Expressive Aphasia, or Broca's Aphasia, you have problems speaking. You have coherent thoughts in your head, but you cannot get them out. It is frustrating for many people--you stare blankly and have a frustrated look on your face. People around you are irritated. You want to express yourself, but you can't.

Receptive aphasia, or Wernicke's Aphasia, is different. If you have this particular problem, you can't understand what people are saying. You also can't understand written language. You hear it (or read it), but it just doesn't make sense.

One fascinating aspect of receptive aphasia is that you also cannot understand yourself. But, you are able to speak. Words come out, but they don't mean anything. This is sometimes referred to as Fluent Aphasia. It is also called Word Salad.

Yesterday, I asked people to submit random words to me on Twitter. I got 53 responses (one of which was an expletive, which I skipped). I used the list to come up with a string of nonsensical sentences to demonstrate the concept of Word Salad. Here is the result:

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

Word Salad is rare, and when it is caused by damage to Wernicke's Area, it can be permanent. But, it can sometimes be temporarily caused by a mental illness such as Schizophrenia or another brain disorder. You may have also witnessed something similar to fluent aphasia if you have ever spent time around someone who is incredibly drunk or high. 

Here is video of an unfortunate news reporter who has a seizure on live television, which causes her to experience brief, fluent aphasia (notice she is able to speak with proper intonation--she just stops making sense. You can also see the distress on her face as she starts to realize something is going terribly wrong):

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

An interesting side note on aphasia--it gets worse with stress. When you are anxious, the speech regions in your brain do not work all that well, and it can get you tongue-tied. Trying to force the words out does not work. Instead, it typically makes it worse.

The best thing to do when you are suffering from temporary, stress-induced aphasia is to pause and take a deep breath. Don't force the words out. Relax and know that in a few seconds, your brain (and mouth) will be working again.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Friday Rorschach: Happy Heart On A Stick

Heart On A Stick, 2014, tempera paint on paper

What it is: This is one of my son's creations. It is a painting of a heart with an arrow going through it. The dots on the bottom of the page are drops of blood. He said the brown blot at the top of the painting is more blood, as is the red blot at the bottom (more about that bottom blot in a minute).

He swore this painting was not inspired by the famous (to our family) sculpture outside of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. If you haven't seen it in person, I highly recommend it. During the day, it rotates on a pole. At night, it continues to rotate, but it also lights up.

The heart sculpture outside of the
Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver

This sculpture has led my family to have deep conversations about the following topics:

1. Classic tattoos
2. Love
3. Heartbreak
4. Violence
5. The nature of art
6. How things rotate

As I mentioned above, my son said he was not thinking about the sculpture when he painted his heart. As a psychologist, I have my suspicions--I think it was somewhere in his unconscious when he was painting.

What you thought it was: This painting has a strong form demand. In Rorschach terms, that means when you look at it, you can discern what it is supposed to be without putting too much mental effort into it. I was wondering if the strong form of the heart would limit your responses. As suspected, most of you saw it for what it was:

A number of you added Valentine's Day to the mix, stretching the limits of the heart form and adding context to your responses:

Most of you thought it had positive emotions associated with it (most likely because of the smiley face):

At least one of you saw negativity, however:

And then there was the poop (this was a surprise to me):

Most people who used the brown color tended to interpret it as chocolate:

This was the first week where someone rotated the picture before responding. In the Rorschach, it is perfectly acceptable to rotate the inkblot and see different images depending on your vantage point. It is harder to rotate a Twitter image since you are not physically holding it, though:

I don't see a sunset. Do you?

Every week, at least one person sees a superhero:

As I am the only person on the planet who has not seen Avatar, I needed to look this one up:

I also needed to look up Tacitus:

And my personal favorite for the week (I was singing Bon Jovi all weekend):

detail of the lower, left-center "house"
What you might have missed: 

The house. There is very clearly a house at the bottom of the painting, although no one noticed it. This is possibly due to the fact that there is a huge heart crushing the house under its weight.

One last thought: One person actually saw a tattoo in the painting:

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday Rorschach is a fun project designed to engage readers' creativity. To participate, follow Max on twitter. He posts the drawing every Friday morning around 10am ET/8am MT. There are no wrong answers to the Friday Rorschach.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sanity Laws In Colorado: Premeditation Does Not Rule Out Insanity

Yesterday, Judge Carlos Samour appointed a new sanity evaluator in the Aurora theater shooting case. The evaluator's name has been redacted from court documents, so the public does not know who this person is. But, he or she has a tough job. With an initial sanity evaluation almost certainly stating the shooter was insane, the new evaluator will need to review the old data objectively and conduct a new, independent evaluation.

A common sentiment expressed in comments sections and all over social media is that it is impossible for the shooter to be insane. Of course he is mentally ill, but he is not insane because he carefully planned his attack. Evidence shows he bought his ticket weeks in advance, amassed an arsenal of guns over a period of months, and set up a complicated bomb in his apartment--all of that required planning and premeditation. Although it was a horrible act, the shooter appeared to think though the details and plan it quite logically. How can he be insane if he planned the attack?

Well, in Colorado, there are three factors that need to be taken into consideration when assessing a defendant's sanity. According to C.R.S. § 16-8-101 et seq:

1. The defendant must have a "mental disease or defect." This is typically defined as a mental illness that "grossly and demonstrably impairs a person's perception or understanding of reality." Usually, a psychotic thought disorder such as Schizophrenia can be considered a mental disease or defect, as the person often hears voices or has delusional thoughts that constitute an impairment of reality. NOTE: If you are drunk or high, your perception of reality is probably impaired, but that does not count as a mental disease or defect (unless you are involuntarily drugged).

In this case, almost no one is disputing the theater shooter had a mental disease or defect at the time of the shooting. So, we must move on to number 2:

2. If the person's mental disease or defect causes him to be unable to form the culpable mental state necessary for the crime, then he is insane. The culpable mental state for First Degree Murder is "knowingly," which means the person must know his actions are going to cause the outcome (murder). The culpable mental state for the bomb charges is also "knowingly."

When a person plans an elaborate scheme, it is hard to argue he did so unknowingly. It is a fairly safe bet he knew his plans would end with people dying. And, this is why many people think the shooter is sane. He knew what he was doing would end in murder. Case closed.

Except for number 3:

3. Even if the person knew what he was doing would end in murder, if his mental disease or defect causes him to be unable to distinguish right from wrong with respect to the illegal actions, then he is insane.

It is most likely the right vs. wrong prong of the Colorado sanity laws where prosecutors and defense attorneys will duke it out. The shooter probably knew what he was doing, otherwise he would not have been able to plan it so effectively. But, if it is determined that he did not know what he was doing was wrong (because he was so confused about what was real and what was delusional), then it is possible a sanity evaluation and/or a jury could find him insane. Even if he knew what he was doing would end in murder.

One last thought: Colorado is an unusual state where the defendant in a sanity case is presumed to be insane. It is up to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was sane at the time--they must unquestioningly prove to a jury that he knew what he was doing would end in murder and he knew right from wrong, even though he was seriously delusional and psychotic at the time.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Friday Rorschach: The Rothko Frames

Frames, construction paper, 2014
This is one of my daughter's pieces of art. She was working quietly in her room for about an hour, then she ran downstairs, shoved them in my wife's hands, said, "Here, take these!" and ran back upstairs.

What it is: According to my daughter, they are picture frames. She cut pieces of construction paper and glued them onto other pieces of construction paper. She said she did not know how she chose which colors should go together; instead, she just started gluing. Each piece is about 10X10, and it is a pretty spectacular site in person. The colors are vivid and bold. It is well balanced, and the shapes jump out at the viewer. The brain makes them into a series of perfect squares, but they are all clearly different.

Our plan is to attach them to a canvas and hang them in our house.

What you thought it was: Every week, I think, "No one is going to be able to do anything with this. I have finally stumped everyone!" And, that is never the case. In fact, I received a record number of responses this week, all of which I retweeted. By the end of the day, I think I also received 10 unfollows, presumably from people who were highly annoyed by my hijacking of their Twitter feed for the entire day.

I was wondering if most people would have difficulty looking past the literal nature of this picture. After all, it really is just a bunch of squares of paper with no definitive form demand. And as suspected, the most common response was a fairly literal one. 

Normally, a response such as, "A group of squares with different colored squares glued to them" would come from a person who uses intellectualization as a defense mechanism. Rather than looking past the literal to expose a person's creativity, the intellectualizer will hide behind a logical process to keep from becoming too vulnerable in front of others. In this case however, I think the high number of literal responses had to do with the abstract nature of the picture rather than a lack of vulnerability (Friday Rorschachers have proven to me on numerous occasions that they are not afraid of showing their vulnerable side).

Here are a few literal responses:

The next most common response was food. On the real Rorschach, food responses sometimes indicate a desire to deal with immediate need states as soon as they are experienced. For example, someone who is hungry and has a strong need to deal with his/her hunger as soon as possible will see food everywhere. Think of Loony Toons cartoons where one hungry character looks at another hungry character, whose head magically turns into a chicken leg.

There is also a psychoanalytic theory that people who see food in abstract shapes are overly dependent on others for emotional support. I'm not sure I completely agree with that theory--it seems equally possible that people who see food are nurturing and want to provide sustenance to others:

A number of people used the repeating pattern in the picture to place a form demand onto it:

Several of you created stories:

A few of you came up with art comparisons (which my daughter thought was awesome):

The artist, examining a Rothko

A bunch of you saw architectural details (mostly from an arial viewpoint):

And then there were the creative responses:

You've got to love the serendipity of this one:

And finally, my favorite for the week:

What you might have missed: Sparkles! No one used the sparkles in their responses, although it was tough to see them in the original picture. Those sparkles are all over our house, by the way.

Here is an up-close view:

One last thought: Some of you add a question mark to the end of your response. As in, "A series of transistors on a microchip?" There is no need to be tentative about your responses. If you see something, you see it. Be bold!

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday Rorschach is a fun project designed to engage readers' creativity. To participate, follow Max on twitter. He posts the drawing every Friday morning around 10am ET/8am MT. There are no wrong answers to the Friday Rorschach.


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