What "The Americans" gets right and wrong about families, deceit and violence.

I have been making my way through FX's "The Americans."  (Spoilers ahead!)  It is about a seemingly normal couple, the Jennings, who are, in fact, Soviet agents living in a Washington suburb and raising two children.  The politics of the show are complicated; the Soviet agents at the centre of the show, Philip and Elizabeth, are very sympathetically portrayed but the very idea that Russian-born Soviet agents were able to successfully pose as native born Americans seems more like post-millennial sci-fi paranoia à la Battlestar Gallactica than cold-war Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy realism.  That aside, the appeal of the show is the marriage at its heart.  How can two people who are expert deceivers and trained to see deceit everywhere, trust one another?  Because they absolutely need to trust one another.  They are alone in enemy territory.  They are one another's only source of safety.


This is the dilemma at the heart of every relationship; No one can betray me like my lover and my lover is the only one who can heal betrayal.  The show manages this with great psychological realism.  Its creator is a former CIA agent. 

I have a serious quibble with the Jennings children though, Paige and Henry.  I am about nine episodes in so this may change but the kids seem ridiculously well-balanced.  This isn't meant to be an action-comedy like "Spy Kids" where the parents bring the diaper bag instead of the bomb disposal bag but the show can't shake the very American convention that to be likable, the spies need to be good, loving parents, with essentially lovable, if slightly troubled kids.  Paige and Henry hitchhike when the parents don't come to get them (because they have been abducted) and Henry smashes a beer bottle over the creepy driver's head to get away and the sibs pledge to keep it a secret.  They get mad and sullen when the parents separate.  This is the early 80s and by the standards of the time all this is pretty small potatoes as troubled kids go. 

Meanwhile Elizabeth and Philip are patient and present for their kids when they hurt over the separation and sneak into their rooms and give them loving looks at night.  These are the same people who stab, blow-up and shoot enemies of the motherland while living a double life as tour agents, people who have given up their pasts and country for an ideology they can never publicly avow.

I haven't worked with someone who lived a double life (any more than we all do).  But I have worked with families that have kept big, dark secrets.  I have worked with families where one or both parents are violent.  There can be protective factors that mitigate the impact of these things but their children are always impacted.  Granted, the Jennings kids' don't see what their parents get up to at night.  But it is very hard to shut off violence and deceit, to keep it hived off, prevent it from leaking out.  And the show recognizes that, plays with it... except when it comes to the kids. 

When Elizabeth and Philip tell the kids that they are separating, one of the kids asks, "Will you stop loving us?"  It would have been far more interesting (and chilling) to show how profoundly Elizabeth has been marred by years of constant deceit if we were offered the possibility of doubting her sincerity rather than seeing a model of connected parenting.  It would be far more interesting if, instead of staring off into space in class, Henry reacted to his parents' separation (and years of hidden violence) by becoming violent himself.  How would Philip and Elizabeth see their son -- and each other -- if Henry was beating the crap out of other kids every week?


It is interesting: The show's creator, Joe Weisberg, said in an interview that spy-parents usually have "the talk" with their kids at some point and let them know that they have been living a lie.  I suspect that if their parents are doing anything one-tenth as convoluted and violent as what the Jennings get up to, the kids already know.  "The talk" probably doesn't involve much listening by the parents or they would have learned that.  Like so much that has to do with children, we don't like to face the reality of the impact of lies and violence on them, so much so that a gritty show, all about the subtle, polyvalent impact of deceit and violence on human relationships, can't dare to get it right. 

Extinction is good for you.

Why do most people bounce back from a traumatic experience after a few weeks or months when others struggle for years with anxiety or PTSD?  What protects some people from the effects of trauma?  What can we do to promote resiliency from trauma? The answer might have to do with 'extinction.'

In psychological parlance 'extinction' can be a good thing.  Extinction means 'unlearning' a conditioned response.  Remember Pavlov and his dogs?  Ring the bell and feed the dogs, eventually the dogs will salivate at the sound of the bell.  That is conditioning.  Well, after a while if they get their food without the bell, the conditioning wears off and the dogs don't salivate anymore, and that is extinction learning; learning that something that was once associated with an experience may not be connected to that experience.

Maladaptive trauma responses, including disorders like PTSD, probably have something to do with conditioned response.  People with PTSD may associate all sorts of things with the original trauma so they are triggered to re-experience the trauma by a smell or sound, or they seek to avoid being in situations which call to mind the trauma, even though objectively those circumstances aren't dangerous.  Richard Bryant, a researcher into responses to trauma, has done a really smart prospective study that suggests that a person's pre-trauma capacity for 'extinction learning', his or her ability to 'unlearn' the connection between a negative experience and the circumstances surrounding it, is very predictive of the ability to bounce back from trauma.  He describes it at about 31 minutes of this video.  The whole video is interesting but this piece is only about four minutes.  

Here's the study for those of you interested in checking it out.  Bryant doesn't talk about what predisposes people to be better or worse 'extinction learners.'  Some of it probably has to do with genetic factors.  I would be curious to know to what degree cognitive flexibility, the ability to change one's ideas about the world, correlates with extinction learning.  Cognitive flexibility can be enhanced by all sorts of things.  If you want to test your cognitive flexibility, some of these tests, like the Stroop test, are good measures.  In the interests of full disclosure I did pretty badly on the Stroop test.  Not sure what that means for my chance of extinction.  

Too much social awareness and too little; Autism and Borderline

I work with a lot of kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in the context of family therapy.  One client of mine will sometimes say something pretty innocuous and then suddenly get worried.  He looks at me anxiously, trying to read my expression.  He asks me “Are you mad? Did I do something wrong?”  He feels like the world is filled with unexpected land-mines. Social situations seem to follow weird rules that everyone but him knows intuitively.  People often get angry at him for mysterious reasons, so I might as well.  This is pretty common for people with ASDs.  They have a tougher time with something called “mentalizing,” which means understanding that other people have different mental states -- knowledge, thoughts and feelings -- than themselves. (I wrote in a previous piece about Theory of Mind, which is very similar to mentalizing. There is a great video demonstrating what this looks like in kids.)  People with ASDs can find it really hard to figure out what those other mental states might be, based on cues that most of us read without thinking about it much like tone of voice, facial expression or posture. 

Some neuroscientists think that the neurology of people with ASDs is different from other people, that they may have fewer 'mirror neurons,' neurons that are thought to help with connecting to another's experiences on a totally unconscious, physiological basis.  Prominent among these is VS Ramachandran, who, in addition to being one of the foremost neuroscientists today, and an interesting philosophical mind, has maybe the coolest accent of anyone I have ever heard speak.

Mirror neurons are pretty spectacular according to Ramachandran, but others dissent.  One of the biggest doses of cold rain on the mirror neuron parade is the fact that we lack clear evidence that they exist in humans.   

Whatever the reason, people with ASDs do really poorly on a relatively new test for reading social cues called the Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition or MASC. MASC is a really neat psychology test that lacks the flash of fMRIs but actually quantifies people's understanding of social situations very well.  The subject is shown a video of a social situation and asked a series of true or false questions about the mental states of the people in the video.  What is really interesting to me is what researchers have found out about people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) when they take the MASC test.  

Among other things, BPD is characterized by very conflictual interpersonal relationships.  This great animation outlines some of the things that go on for people with BPD and the criteria for diagnosis.  

People with BPD do very poorly on the MASC test but for almost exactly the opposite reason than people with ASDs. While people with ASDs tend to mentalize poorly -- that is to consider and evaluate correctly the inner experiences of the people in the video -- people with BPD tend to “hypermentalize.”  They are very tuned in to the mental states of others, perhaps too tuned in.  Some research indicates that people with BPD may actually be better at correctly “reading” other people's emotional states based on limited information than non-BPD people.  But like many people with ASD, people with BPD can find the social environment confusing and overwhelming, not because they have too little information to understand what is happening, but too much.  I suspect they are also lopsided because their hypermentalizing often tends towards the negative; that is they read negative cues very clearly but positive cues get less focus.  

Think about how many quick, frustrated glances or disapproving sighs a person might encounter in the social landscape in a typical afternoon.  People who don't have BPD may register them almost unconsciously, as subtle social cues to "hurry up", "hold on a minute" or "give me some space".  Those things help most of us adjust our social behaviour.  But people with BPD experience each negative micro-expression like an angry, screaming tirade leaving them as bewildered as the young boy with ASD asking, “what did I do wrong?”

Poverty, Families and Mental Health

A great blog post called "5 Stereotypes about poor families and education" in the Washington Post a few days ago quoted extensively from a book by Paul C. Gorski titled Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty.  The excerpt offers a lot of research to dispel some common negative myths about poor people that impact the way schools and educators tend to approach them and how that impacts their experience of school; poor people don't value education, poor people are lazy, poor people are more likely to be substance abusers, poor people are linguistically impoverished and -- the biggy -- poor people are ineffective parents.  

This is a tricky subject because some things about poverty can have an impact on kids' school performance as well as physical and mental health.  Well-intentioned governments and schools generally want to respond to those negative effects in order to ensure that kids growing up in poverty have the best opportunities they can (or say they do, at any rate).  But as Gorski points out fuzzy thinking about how exactly poverty does or doesn't impact kids and families can be deleterious on a classroom or a public policy level.  

Stereotypes can make us unnecessarily afraid or accusatory of our own students, including our most disenfranchised students, not to mention their families. They can misguide us into expressing low expectations for poor youth and their families or to blame them for very the ways in which the barriers they face impede their abilities to engage with schools the way some of us might engage with schools.

The WP post doesn't discuss the tings we do know about the ways in which poverty (or things that are highly correlated with it) impact kids and families though I am assuming the book will do just that.  Paul Tough wrote a great piece a few years ago for the New Yorker called "The Poverty Clinic."  The article looked at a medical clinic which used the findings of the Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences study to treat poor families.  The upshot of the study and Tough's article is that childhood trauma is a huge risk factor for both physical and psychological illness both in childhood and in later life.  Since poor people are much less well insulated against trauma, they are, on average, at greater risk.  Trauma both intensity and frequency are a great predictor of difficulty in school and later life, but not poverty per se.  

The other piece of really interesting research about differences in family style between poor and middle-class families and how that impacts education that Gorski alludes to in the extract, but that doesn't get a lot of play is Anette Lareau's distinction between middle-class "concerted cultivation" versus poor and working class "accomplishment of natural growth."  While not contradicting Gorski, Lareau does portray the poor/working class families in her study as less organized around talk and less at ease with certain kinds of parent involvement (Gorski says that poor families may want to be involved but may feel turned-off by the ways schools invite participation, which tends to be geared towards middle-class parents). 

Finally, one of the things that Gorski doesn't address in the blog post is varieties of poverty.  Because poverty itself is not the cause of academic failure or ill health or family dysfunction, but certain things that are often associated with poverty are risk factors for all those things, we should look at and think about the way differences between poverties impact those factors; for example, not every poor community increases exposure to trauma for kids.  Some poor communities are better at insulating their young against trauma than some wealthier communities.

When do kids 'get' irony?

The ability to understand that other people have different ideas and information about the world from one's self emerges in most kids by around four years old.  This ability that most of us share is really nicely illustrated by this video.  According to psychologist (and brother-of-Borat) Simon Baron-Cohen, kids with Autism Spectrum disorder have a much harder time with tasks such as these.  A recent study in Frontiers in Psychology found that empathy and the ability to understand irony are correlated in kids. 

Empathy was strongly associated with several aspects of irony comprehension and processing, suggesting that emotional reasoning abilities are important to development of irony comprehension.
— http://www.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00691/full#h5

Makes sense.  Irony is a disconnect between what a person says and his or her inner state.  By around eight years of age most kids can 'get' that disconnect.  The authors point out that these are both areas that are difficult for people with ASDs.  Empathy and reading irony both require projecting one's self into another person's inner experience; Theory of Mind.  In the case of irony, one has to do that while swimming upstream, as it were, against the current of the literal message.  I have noticed in my practice how hard and frustrating it is for kids with ASDs to read and irony. 

3 great insights into couples' trust and betrayal in 4 1/2 minutes

John Gottman, the most important researcher into how couples function and fail working today, offers three great, research-based insights into what helps or hurts relationships. 

We have a choice to turn away or connect with our partner dozens of times a day and that is more important for the health of a relationship than betrayal itself.  What turning towards a partner looks like: ATTUNE, an acronym for Awareness of feelings, Turning towards the feeling, Tolerance of two different viewpoints, seeking Understanding of one's partner, responding Non-defensively, Empathy.  How CLalt (Comparison Level Alternative or "I can do better") when you are frustrated with a partner can lead to relationship destroying cascades.  Great!