Quality & Science

Editorial Comment 8/4/2020: The variety of human experience

by Editor-in-Chief: Dr. William Haning, MD, DFAPA, DFASAM | August 4, 2020

Editorial comment:  The variety of human experience


Those who are familiar with the superb program by Shankar Vedantam, on National Public Radio, "The Hidden Brain," a weekly interview and analysis of issues in neuroscience and behavior, may also be as accustomed as I in discovering how much I do not know [https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510308/hidden-brain ].  In his July 27 program, "Creativity and Diversity: How exposure to different people affects our thinking," Vedantam describes the extraordinary fertility and productivity that arises out of throwing people together who have dissimilar experiences and backgrounds. As I listened to it, I could not help but be reminded of two images. 


The former was of my father-in-law, who decades ago founded an annual retreat in which university faculty and prominent local personalities were obliged to consider and discuss a pre-selected topic.  The topics generally centered on a projective theme (“Death,  Honor, Fear,” were examples). He would invariably provide a three-ring binder with pounds of articles and book-chapters as anticipatory homework. And he selected attendees whom he expected to disagree, perhaps even vehemently.  But the risks were mitigated by the founder’s insistence that all points of view be welcome. The participants were civilized; blood was not shed; the discourse, happily, was not restrained; and by the conclusion of the retreat, minds had been expanded.  (He is 85; the retreats continue.)


The latter was of a fellow senior staff officer at a Marine Corps command of over 80,000 souls. He was a Marine Corps reservist, a colonel who had been recalled to serve as Chief of Staff to the Commanding General.  He was 6-1/2 feet tall, his voice soft but basso profundo, with a fully shaven head and massive muscles barely restrained by the standard Marine service-charlie uniform.  In civilian life he owned a ranch and raised horses in one of the central  mountain states. From the description I have just given you, you would be forgiven for developing a prejudicial caricature of the man, prejudicial in the literal sense of “pre-judged.”  In my experience with this Colonel, I had believed his affective range to run from taciturn to, well, just plain grim.  And so, I was particularly surprised at his enthusiasm when he announced that he had invited a scientist from DARPA to speak to the combined staff on a sublime and complex technical issue. Before I could figure out a way to ask him why he had done this, and as if reading my mind, he turned his massive head in my direction  and said, "I really like listening to smart people." That not being an attitude particularly esteemed in our government presently, it may be unfamiliar to some readers.  But really, what he was articulating was this required component of creativity: an attitude of open-mindedness. 


You are entitled to know what this has to do with addiction, but my intent is more concerned with addiction treatment.  The radio program and the experiences serve to remind me that there is too much unknown about successful treatment for us to be dismissive of either new ideas or departures from orthodoxy.  Familiar to many is a remark much-loved in the recovery community, mistakenly attributed to William James but which belongs instead to William Paley:  “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance - that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”