Shrink Rap

Life is like Skinner's box of chocolates: Slater revisits 20th-century psych's greatest hits

Lauren Slater is the closest thing we have to a doyenne of psychiatric disorder. Not only has she outflanked Elizabeth Wurtzel with smart, slippery memoirs chronicling her lifelong adventures in mental pandemonium (Prozac Diary, Lying), but she has also become The New York Times Magazine's resident expert on treatments and theories that overturn some of our most deeply held ideas about ourselves. Slater, a practicing psychologist, wrote one feature proposing that self-esteem may be dangerous; another suggested we should be repressing traumatic memories instead of airing them.

"I've had my fair share of traumas," Slater wrote in her piece on repression, "and if I could learn to tamp them down and thereby prune my thorny lived-out-loud life a little, I'd be more than happy to. Go ahead. Give me a lock and key." That's funny coming from the author of multiple memoirs, but never mind—I like Slater's inconsistency. Some people spend thousands of dollars on therapy and self-help books searching for "closure," but she prefers to keep her mind dangerously ajar.

Slater's latest book, Opening Skinner's Box, re-evaluates 10 crucial (and in many cases, reviled) American experiments, from António Egas Moniz's lobotomies and Harry Harlow's brutal investigations into the nature of love to Elizabeth Loftus's false memory research. But the authoritative, generic subtitle (Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century) is misleading. It suggests that Slater has swerved off the autobiographical path and embraced a more straightforward narrative, whereas these essays feel nearly as intimate as her memoirs. She dandles each experiment on her lap, delectating over its history and implications.

Pathos and possibility: Lauren Slater
photo: Leah Sasten
Pathos and possibility: Lauren Slater

Details

Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century
By Lauren Slater
W.W. Norton, 276 pp., $24.95
Buy this book

With her knack for concocting juicy tales out of desiccated scientific research, Slater has a great future as a popularizer of academic ideas. She swaddles history in personal anecdote and investigative journalism. (After all, our lives "are not data points and means and modes, they are stories.") In her chapter on B.F. Skinner, Slater traces the spoor of his behaviorist ideas through present-day child-rearing techniques and treatments for phobias and autism. "Skinner was able to systematically evoke and explain much of human folly, why we do dumb things even when we're not consistently rewarded," she writes admiringly. "Why perfectly normal people empty their coffers in smoky casinos" or women wait by the phone for a guy to call. Skinner may have deciphered the mechanisms of compulsion, but that doesn't stop Slater from being driven by her own compulsive curiosity. She pursues Skinner beyond normal scholarly limits, hoping to unravel the creepy rumors about him—that he was a sadist who imprisoned his own infant daughter in one of his boxes and drove her to suicide. By chapter's end, she has infiltrated his family homestead and is nibbling on a stale piece of chocolate that Skinner was consuming when he died a decade ago.

Slater sets herself other gonzo missions. In order to disprove the theory that regular exposure to drugs increases addiction, she decides to take opiates for several weeks and see what happens. (The result: no cravings, no clear conclusions, just a lot of beautifully expressed ambivalence.) Slater also replicates David Rosenhan's 1970s experiment in which healthy people were sent to mental institutions pretending to hear voices. The idea was to test how well psychiatrists could distinguish the sane from the insane. They couldn't: Although Rosenhan's fakers dropped their false symptoms almost immediately, they were all locked up and drugged for extensive periods, calling into question the validity of psychiatry as science. Presenting herself at the doors of psych wards is a loaded gesture for Slater, with her extensive history of mental illness. As in Rosenhan's test, doctors diagnose her based on a single flimsy symptom—but instead of admitting her, they send her home with medication. Slater concludes that the "zeal to prescribe drives diagnosis in our day, much like zeal to pathologize drove diagnosis in Rosenhan's day." But she does see positive changes in the system: Rosenhan reported widespread cruelty in the hospitals, whereas Slater notes the "palpable kindness" of the people who try to treat her.

Most of the scientists in Opening Skinner's Box discount the role of personal experience as a factor, and Slater herself extols the promise of neurological solutions as opposed to therapy. So it's ironic that she can't resist psychoanalyzing these characters. Was Eric Kandel's work on memory partly inspired by his childhood in Nazi Germany? How much did Harry Harlow's depression motivate his experiments with love and despair? Sometimes Slater sounds downright judgmental. She writes of Elizabeth Loftus, who stirred up controversy in the '80s with False Memory Syndrome, "She is strange, I think, and a little loose inside." And she asks addiction researcher Bruce Alexander if he does drugs, "because he sometimes seems a little tilted."

Slater seems kind of loose and tilted herself, which means that this vivid, idiosyncratic ramble through history probably won't be heartily embraced by the scientific establishment. But Opening Skinner's Box is worth reading for the provocative questions it asks and for the way it lingers over the fragile, human side of psychology. Slater sees pathos and possibility in our desire to heal by any means available—even such fuzzy, imperfect solutions as brain surgery and Prozac. Compare this, as Slater does, to her young daughter's inexplicable obsession with Band-Aids. "The Band-Aids soothe," she writes, "even though we don't know just what or where her wound is."

 
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