Do you have problems with trichotillomania, dermatillomania or onychophagia? Can you pronounce them properly? All kidding aside, these are just fancy names for hair pulling, skin picking and nail biting. If you have problems with any of these or with thumb sucking, modern technology has an answer for you. A company called HabitAware has invented a device called Keen. Keen is a bracelet that a person wears that vibrates every time he moves in a direction towards carrying out the problem behavior that he is experiencing. These vibrations help a person to retrain his brain so that he is no longer tempted to carry out the problem behavior.
What we have here is a form of Pavlovian conditioning. Like the kind of conditioning that Behaviorist psychologists have used in their training of rats. Actually, there are a lot of psychotherapists today who incorporate behaviorist elements in their therapy with humans. Behaviorist theories are very appealing to many therapists, because they are so direct and so focused on particular problems. And, on the surface, they seem to provide relatively short-term solutions to symptoms that can generate a lot of suffering. Keen is a way of applying behaviorist principles to oneself without the need of a psychotherapist or a concerned parent.
By now, you probably realize that I wouldn’t be writing about Keen, if I didn’t see problems with using it. The biggest problem is that we are conditioned in other ways in the process of being conditioned to not engage in our bad habits. Behaviorism answers that the main way we humans are influenced in life is through what I call defined discrete stimuli. These are stimuli that have defined borders and defined duration. They are measurable and focused. And because they are so defined, they are easy to manipulate. And because they are so easy to manipulate, it makes them easy to use in order to manipulate people. In order for a person to be very receptive to these stimuli, he has to reconfigure his mind to not be so receptive to other forms of stimuli that are distinct from defined discrete stimuli. There are stimuli that have blurring boundaries and a blurry duration. These are the stimuli that I have previously called flowing, blendable, continual stimuli. They are like a wave on the ocean with an imprecise beginning and an imprecise end. They are not measurable and they are not as easy to manipulate. They are more complex than defined discrete stimuli. Because of this, it is much more difficult to predict cause and effect relationships with them.
And yet it is precisely the complexity of these stimuli and the complexity of their effects that allow humans to maintain their free will. Because these stimuli are complex, we don’t know how precisely they are going to affect us. However, we do know that sources of flowing blendable continual stimuli are going to be entities that create mirroring and modeling for humans and that lead to flowing blendable continual responses from humans. Responses that can’t easily be predicted. It is in these complex unpredictable responses that people maintain their freedom as organisms rather than becoming machines.
But something like Keen, with its simple defined discrete stimuli that warn a person when he is about to engage in a bad habit, elicits simple direct robot responses in order to deal with certain compulsive bad habits. A person is thus subtly molded into a robot in attempting to deal with the bad habits that bother him so much. A global compulsive behavior is used as a remedy for eliminating a few simple compulsive irritations.
I myself believe that a more organic approach would be psychodynamic therapy. Psychodynamic therapy deals with emotion, the flow of memories, the flow of free associations, flowing blendable continual phenomena to re-stimulate that part of one’s mind that is more organic, more mammalian. Because a psychological healing involves not only the formal defined discrete goal of the healing itself. A psychological healing also involves a series of secondary transformations that are generated by the journey that a patient takes in moving towards a healing. And this is because such a healing seldom involves a person being restored to exactly the way he was before the psychological illness started to appear. Hair pulling, skin picking, nail biting and thumb sucking can all be viewed as controllable repetitive mechanistic habits. Do we really want to attack them from the point of view of a mechanistic healing that leaves a mechanistic overlay over our minds? In a sense, using such an approach leaves a residue of a mechanistic predisposition in a person that leaves that person vulnerable to other mechanistic repetitive behavior.
In general, sometimes the best way of dealing with a problem is not a direct defined discrete approach where we go in to solve a primary problem without dealing with the secondary problems that surround it. This is particularly true of psychological problems. Hair pulling, skin picking, nail biting and thumb sucking are not isolated problems but rather parts of clusters of problems all of which relate to deeper emotional problems. In other words, these habits are actually symptoms of other deeper problems. Keen may help a person to temporarily repress these surface problems, but the stress, the anxiety remain. So other surface problems can present themselves to replace the original surface problems. It is better to use an indirect flowing blendable continual approach of psychodynamic therapy to get rid of the surface problems discussed here as well as any other secondary surface problems that may be presenting themselves as well as the deeper emotional problems that undergird the surface problems.
(c) 2019 Laurence Mesirow