Monday, April 25, 2022

Review: Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness, by Joe Moran

 Joe Moran's book is a nice exploration of various historical figures (such as authors, poets, and musicians) who had what he calls "shyness."  Moran alludes to his own shyness as well.  

A thematic goal of the book is to understand shyness as a part of the tapestry and variety of human life, as opposed to a pathology that requires treatment, or that is even treatable at all.  

Moran is a good writer--he's an English professor, and it is always a delight to read a book in this type of genre written by someone with a mastery of the language.  

This book is interesting as a historical or biographical journey, but I found it quite limited as a serious study of shyness from a psychiatric point of view.  First of all, "shyness" is a very limited term to describe the many varieties of anxiety, introversion, personality styles, and autistic traits likely present in some of his case studies.  

Near the end of the book, Moran encourages a position of gentle acceptance of shyness, but this acceptance seems to disparage the potential value of attempting to help people manage or change their social anxiety or avoidance using therapeutic techniques.  One chapter is even called "The War Against Shyness," which is a pretty strong condemnation of the therapeutic culture.    

There are many shy people, who have what might be considered social anxiety or autistic traits, who might find therapy helpful, to improve social skills, to find ways of facing fears more comfortably, or even to reduce anxiety a notch (including with the help of medication).   We should always have modest or limited expectations of therapy; also we need to take care to affirm an accepting rather than a pathologizing stance, particularly when social behaviour and experience always exists on a spectrum.  Yet the best of modern therapy is affirming and accepting; it just helps people to suffer a little bit less, to help people have a little bit more freedom in their lives to do things they might find meaningful, enjoyable, or essential for survival or prosperity.  

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Review: Blueprint by Nicholas Christakis

 I am happy to have discovered Christakis and his work, in an area I would call “evolutionary sociology” or “mathematical sociology.”  

Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society is an excellent companion to books by Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, and Richard Dawkins, and even behavioural economists such as Kahneman, looking at issues concerning the genetic components of individual and group behaviour, and the intersection or interplay between “genetic” and “environmental.”     Christakis shares Pinker’s general optimism about human progress, though through a social and anthropological lens rather than a strictly individual, rationality-based one.  Haidt and Christakis both look at dynamics of group differences, Haidt as a psychologist, Christakis as a sociologist.  And Christakis looks at gene-environment interaction on a group level, a continuation or elaboration of Dawkins idea of an “extended phenotype.”  

Near the beginning of the book, there are very interesting case studies presented about small groups that isolated themselves from the rest of society, either through choice (e.g. the Shakers), or through disaster (shipwrecks), then having to develop some means of survival, stability, or happiness.  Some organizational styles were successful, especially when there was some form of effective but not overly rigid leadership, combined with respect for individual differences, and a culture encouraging playful interactions.   Some styles led to failure (a very low survival rate), such as if warring factions developed, “Lord of the Flies” style, or if the community was either too anarchistic, too insular, or too tyrannical.  

Christakis introduces network analysis of groups, which I would like to learn more about.  I consider this to be in the mathematical discipline of “graph theory,” another nice example of pure mathematical concepts and modern data science allowing us a deeply insightful view of aspects of human nature.     I consider this type of analysis especially important in this age of online connectivity, which has the potential to amplify or distort connectivity phenomena, leading to powerful forces of social change, leadership, and spread of ideas or culture.  

After finishing this, I am motivated to finally start Christakis’ next book, Apollo’s Arrow, which is about  the COVID pandemic, again studying it through the lens of sociology and group dynamics.  

A general takeaway point from this book, from my perspective as a psychiatrist, would be to even more strongly value an understanding of social and group dynamics in a person’s life, to understand the nature of connections, connections of connections, group memberships, friendships, communication, and community, in much greater detail, as a component of understanding psychiatric phenomena and strategizing about therapeutic help, rather than stopping at the level of individual psychology only.