Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Prefer An Unmelancholy Dane?

Edwin Booth’s Hamlet
At the end of a Times Op Ed article entitled “Learning How to Exert Self-Control,” (NYT, 9/13/14), Pamela Druckerman quotes Walter Mischel, a professor of psychology at Columbia as saying, “Melancholy is not one of my emotions. Quite seriously, I don’t do melancholy. It’s a miserable way to be.” Mischel was the author of the famous “marshmallow test” in which children were asked to defer gratification (and has written a book called The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control). Those who were able to defer gratification often did better in life. Druckerman quotes Mischel to the effect that “We don’t need to be victims of our emotions. We have a prefrontal cortex that allows us to evaluate whether or not we like the emotions that are running us.” But there are others who might disagree. Take the Noble prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman who has written about the enormous role the irrational plays in human life and how people are ruled by unconscious drives over which they have relatively little control. Kahneman, for example,  has demonstrated the role of “loss aversion” in economic life. The work of the neuroscientists, Antoine Bechara, Antonio Damasio, Hanna Damasio and Steven Anderson, whose Iowa Gambling Task deals with emotion based learning, also appear to confute Mischel’s view. How easy or beneficial is it to discountenance melancholy? Sure there are people who have an endlessly positive and productive worldview. But sometimes this kind of behavior is known as denial. And those who embody it represent a juggernaut of wishful thinking and rational constructs (products of their prefrontal cortex no doubt) that denies the complexity and beauty of what it means to be human. Was Hamlet’s problem simply that he didn’t control his emotions?

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