The college professor had just finished explaining an important research project to his class. He emphasized that this paper was an absolute requirement for passing his class, and that there would be only two acceptable excuses for being late. Those were a medically certifiable illness or a death in the student’s immediate family. A smart ass student in the back of the classroom waved his hand and spoke up.
“But what about extreme sexual exhaustion, professor?”
As you would expect, the class exploded in laughter. When the students had finally settled down, the professor froze the young man with a glaring look.
“Well,” he responded, “I guess you’ll just have to learn to write with your other hand.”
Way back in the dark ages of high school, I took a course that was an introduction to psychology and sociology. I don’t remember what it was called, and I seem to think it was supposed to be one or the other, but ended up being done as a combination when enrolment was low. I don’t remember that much from the course. It was okay, semi-interesting, but it didn’t compel me to want to do a degree in it or anything. Later, when I had electives available in university, it didn’t make my list. Mind you, that was some 30 years ago, when I think they still lobotomized people to let their demons out, so probably not all that useful to me even if I had taken it. 🙂
But as I got older and went through difficult periods in my life, or even just large periods of change and self-reflection, I started to think more and more about how the brain works, how personalities develop, how people misuse their brain to trick themselves into ways of thinking that are not optimal, efficient or even helpful. Self-sabotaging behaviour that your brain either hides or actively encourages vs. ways it helps itself heal. Some moments in my life stand out.
First and foremost was my change in “who I was” going from high school to university to law school to working stiff, through my “tadpole years” of self-reflection and change, and who I became. What pieces were engrained, immutable, part of my bedrock personality and how did they become so? Nature vs. nurture, on a micro-level.
Second, there was the loss of my parents. Similarities in experience yet vast differences too. Was it my age? Change in my support network? Had I just grown more?
Third, the elements of family. I was the youngest of six kids. I discount most of the pop psych about birth order, mostly because I think psych is about individuals, not statistics about groups, but I find one area intriguing. Growing up, I didn’t know my one brother very well. He moved out of the house when I was 5 or 6, and I didn’t interact with him a lot in the next 20 years. It wasn’t like we didn’t see each other, but we were never “close”. In fact, of my five siblings, I would say he was the farthest away in relations. Yet, when we reconnected when I was 30 and he was 40, we experienced a natural bond we had never felt before. It happened over dinner one night — a dinner that almost didn’t happen. He was in town for work, and it wasn’t like “Oh, obviously we’ll do this or that together.” It was more like, “Hey, so, he’s in town. We should probably see each other. Maybe dinner or something?”. Very tentative, like, we *should* do something, shouldn’t we? Wouldn’t most siblings see each other if they were in town? Yeah, we agreed on dinner. And part of the night was like we were finishing each other’s sentences. Even though we have led very different lives — he had been married, had six kids, was very independent early in life, and had been in the military for 20 years; I was the pampered youngest child, not married, no kids, lived at home up until law school — there was an immediate real connection, way beyond friendship, beyond just family. Like somehow our souls knew each other from some other time and place and met up for a beer. Now, I consider him one of my closest siblings and friends. How do our different yet similar beginnings produce vastly different lives and outcomes yet our psyches retain some common elements that look like genetics? Again, nurture vs. nature. Equally, I’ve heard lots of people talk about how they’ve always been close to a sibling, while I’ve been close to different siblings at different parts of my life — close to my next-oldest sibling, a brother, when I was young, say up to age 14; close to my second-oldest sibling in my late teen years; close to my oldest sister and her son when I came back from university and up until my Dad died, and then again more recently; close to my other sister, third oldest, after my dad died and for a number of years afterwards; and closest to my “middle” brother (fourth-oldest) as mentioned above. A wax-and-wane type experience.
Fourth, I became an aspiring writer. I need to know how to access the psyche of a fictional character, how to get into their head and write what THEY would do, not what I would do if I was pretending to be them. To figure out how to flesh the character out fully — the role of hero, villain, mistress, husband — and how to make them real, not names or formulaic archetypes.
Lastly, I became a husband and a father within the same year. Huge changes in my life and in my roles as a person. What role does my behaviour play in my son’s development? He has had some physical challenges, and almost everything he has faced, regardless of what we have done to help him, it really is just him overcoming them on his own. Outgrowing some stuff, ignoring others, figuring out the rest. We help, but the biggest difference over time is just him being awesome. Is it just nature?
All of which has led to a renewed interest in psychology. I don’t want to do a full degree, with electives, exams, papers, etc. I just want the knowledge, not a piece of paper to certify it. And while I can find it just about anywhere (library, internet, Amazon, etc.), what I really wanted is what I always want when looking at a new area — curated content. The fruits of the labour of someone who has already trod the same path before me, who says, “Here is a good framework to understand an issue” and “Here’s some stuff you should read”. I may develop strong interest in certain areas of psychology like child development, but to start, I really wanted a good overview to show me the whole canvas, not the exciting brush strokes in one corner.
Instead of just buying a textbook and reading it, I found a free online psych course, with credentials behind it to reassure me it’s not some quack throwing stuff up on a blog (hey, wait a minute, says my id, but we’ll ignore him for now).
Enter the MOOC…stay tuned.