It’s not just hormones: What’s really happening in the minds of teenage girls?

A teenage girl is a force of nature, with emotions so powerful they shock even her. In this exclusive excerpt, psychotherapist Lisa Damour uses neuroscience to help parents – and anyone perplexed by teenage girls – understand what’s really going on in their heads

When I was in my first semester of graduate school, the professor teaching my psychological testing course handed me a stack of Rorschach inkblot tests to score. Before sending me on my way, he offhandedly said, “Double-check the age of the person whose test you are scoring. If it’s a teenager, but you think it’s a grown-up, you’ll conclude that you have a psychotic adult. But that’s just a normal teenager.”

Twenty years later, I don’t need to score inkblot tests to know that healthy teenage development can look pretty irrational. Parents tell me about it every day. They describe how a minor annoyance – such as when a girl finds out that the jeans she wants are still riding out the rinse cycle – can turn into an emotional earthquake that knocks everyone in the house off balance.

The sudden force of a teenager’s feelings can catch parents off guard because, between the ages of six and 11, children go through a phase of development that psychologists call latency . As the term implies, the mercurial moods of early childhood simmer down and girls are pretty easygoing until they become teenagers and their emotions kick up again. Recent developments in brain science offer new insight into why latency ends when it does. Though we used to assume that the brain stopped developing somewhere around age 12, we now know that the brain remodels dramatically during the teenage years. The renovation project follows the pattern in which the brain grew in the womb. It starts with the lower, primal portions (the limbic system) then moves to the upper, outer areas (the cortex), where the functions that separate humans from other animals live.

Updates to the limbic system heighten the brain’s emotional reactions with research indicating that the feeling centres beneath the cortex are actually more sensitive in teens than in children or adults. For example, one straightforward study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to watch teenage brains respond, in real time, to emotional input. The research team showed images of fearful, happy and calm faces to children, teens and adults while monitoring the activity of the amygdala, a key player in the emotional reactions of the limbic system. Compared to the brain activity of children and adults, the teens’ amygdalas reacted strongly to fearful or happy faces. In other words, emotional input rings like a gong for teenagers and a chime for everyone else.

With the lower-to-higher remodelling of the brain, the frontal cortex – the part of the brain that exerts a calming, rational influence – doesn’t come fully online until adulthood. This means that limbic system reactions outstrip frontal cortex controls. Put simply, intense emotions burst through and introduce you, and your daughter, to a new period of emotional upheaval.

Adults often tell teens that their feelings are at full blast because of “hormones.” This usually doesn’t go over very well, plus it’s probably inaccurate. Despite the obvious coincidence between the beginnings of puberty – with its acne, growth spurts, and dawning smelliness – and the intensification of your daughter’s emotions, research suggests that the impact of pubertal hormones on teenagers’ moods is indirect, at best.

In fact, studies find that hormones respond to, or may even be trumped by, other factors that influence your daughter’s mood, such as stressful events or the quality of her relationship with you.

In other words, the changes in your daughter’s brain and the events that occur around her are more likely to shape her mood than the hormonal shifts occurring inside of her.

Here’s the bottom line: What your daughter broadcasts matches what she actually experiences. Really, it’s just that intense, so take her feelings seriously, regardless of how overblown they might seem. Parents who are surprised by their daughter’s dramatic ups and downs can lose sight of the fact that she is pretty shocked, too.

So if your teenage daughter is developing normally, you are living with someone who secretly worries that she is crazy and who might have the psychological assessment results of a psychotic adult. And we might as well add that you are living with a girl whose key support system – her tribe – consists of peers who are also as reactive and erratic as they will ever be. Your daughter works hard every day to harness powerful and unpredictable emotions so that she can get on with doing everything else she means to do.

To manage all of that intensity and to keep from feeling crazy, she’ll recruit your help. Depending on the moment, she might ask for your support directly, she might unload her feelings on you or she might find a way for you to have a feeling on her behalf.

Sometimes you’ll recognize the role you are being asked to play, other times you’ll only appreciate your part in retrospect, if at all. Understanding your daughter’s efforts to harness emotions will allow you to maintain your sanity while you’re busy helping her feel confident in her own.

Teenagers often manage their feelings by dumping the uncomfortable ones on their parents, so don’t be surprised if you find that the arrival of adolescence comes with a surge in complaining. No parents enjoy listening to their daughter’s endless stream of complaints, but it’s a lot easier to stand if we appreciate that her griping serves a valuable purpose.

Complaining to you allows your daughter to bring the best of herself to school. Instead of being rude or aggressive toward peers or teachers at school, your daughter contains her irritation and waits until she is safely in your company to express it.

If she can hold it together all day at school, you might wonder why your daughter can’t hold it together a little bit longer so that she can also be pleasant with you. As it turns out, willpower is a limited resource. By the time they get to the end of the day, there’s just no energy left to contain their annoyance, and the complaining begins.

Girls who get a chance to talk about the abundant frustrations of their day usually feel better once they’ve unloaded their distress on you. Any adult who has spent dinnertime grumbling about a co-worker, neighbour, or boss understands that sharing one’s true feelings at home makes it a lot easier to be charming out in public. Teenagers are no different. Having used you as their emotional dumping ground, they are prepared to return to school and play the part of the good citizen.

Indeed, they may be able to act as a good citizen at school precisely because they are spending some of their time imagining the colourful complaints they will share once their school day has ended.

When your daughter complains, listen quietly and remind yourself that you are providing her with a way to unload the stress of her day. Many parents find that they want to do something as they listen to their daughter’s distress – to offer advice, point out their daughter’s misconceptions, make a plan to address her troubles, and so on. Do not feel pressed to solve your daughter’s problems; you’ve probably tried and already found that she routinely rejects your suggestions, even the especially brilliant ones.

If you really want to help your daughter manage her distress, help her see the difference between complaining and venting. Complaining generally communicates a sense that “someone should fix this,” while venting communicates that “I’ll feel better when someone who cares about me hears me out.”

Most of what teens complain about can’t be fixed. No magic wand can make her peers, teachers, coaches, locker location, or homework any less irritating. Better for her to do a little less complaining about such realities and a little more venting. In doing so, she moves away from the childlike idea that the world should bend to her wishes to the adult idea that life comes with many unavoidable bumps.

How do you get her to do this?

When she starts rolling out the complaints, consider asking, “Do you want my help with what you’re describing, or do you just need to vent?”

If she wants your help, she’ll tell you. Even better, she might take your advice having actually asked for it.

If she wants to vent, she’ll tell you and you can sit back and know that just by listening you are offering meaningful support. More important, she’ll start to learn that sometimes, just by listening, you are providing all the help she needs. Your daughter may be suspicious of your motives the first time you offer her the opportunity for unbridled venting. If she has grown used to getting (and, of course, reflexively rejecting) your advice when she complains, she may wonder what you’re up to. But stick with it and be clear that you believe in the healing powers of “just venting.” Soon, she’ll come around. Don’t expect that venting will – or should – fully replace complaining. But do take advantage of opportunities to help your daughter distinguish between problems that can and should be solved and problems that are best addressed by sharing them with someone who cares.

If the content of your daughter’s venting strikes you as totally unfair and you feel compelled to weigh in, consider saying, “I have a different take on the situation. Do you want to hear it?” Should she say yes, carry on. Should she say no, bite your tongue and find comfort in the knowledge that your daughter is now aware that she shouldn’t mistake your silence for a tacit endorsement of her views.

Congratulate yourself when you can get your daughter to advance to venting, because there will be times when you won’t even be able to get how she expresses her displeasure up to the level of complaining (much less venting). These are the days when she simply takes out her annoyance on anyone in her path – a particularly unpleasant, and common, form of using you (your other children, or the family dog) as an emotional dumping ground. If your daughter feels that she must punish your family for her bad day, you might let one or two cutting comments pass. But, if it becomes clear that she plans to be wretched all evening, go ahead and say, “You may not be in a good mood, but you are not allowed to mistreat us. If you want to talk about what’s bugging you, I’m all ears. If you’re going to be salty all night, don’t do it here.”

Externalization is a technical term describing how teenagers sometimes manage their feelings by getting their parents to have their feelings instead. In other words, they toss you an emotional hot potato.

Your adolescent daughter doesn’t wake up one day and say to herself, “I think I’ll start handing off my uncomfortable feelings to my parents.” The decision to use externalization for emotional relief occurs outside her conscious awareness. Unconscious processes can be powerful. If we could hold up a microphone to your daughter’s unconscious mind, it would say, “You know, I’ve had a long day of being upset about this poor grade I just got back – the whole thing has become exhausting. I don’t have a solution to the problem, but I need a break from being upset. I’ll leave the test where Dad will surely find it so that he can be upset about it. Now, he might try to get me to remain upset about this grade, so I’ll tell him he’s overreacting and walk away – that should keep the upset feeling in his lap and out of mine for a while.”

Externalization happens when your daughter wants to get rid of an uncomfortable feeling. And not just anyone will take on her uncomfortable feeling; it has to be someone who really loves her. Externalization is a profound form of empathy.

It goes beyond feeling with your daughter to the point of actually feeling something on her behalf . When teens complain, they own their discomfort, will often accept your empathy, and may even allow you to help them address the source of their misery. When they externalize, they want you to accept ownership of the offending feeling and will prevent you from giving it back.

It’s the difference between “Mom, I want to tell you how uncomfortable this very hot potato I’m holding is and see if you’ve got any good ideas for how I might manage it” and “Mom, take this hot potato, I don’t want to hold it any more. And hang on to it for a while.”

Externalization is a strange and subtle process that helps make adolescence manageable – for your daughter. Teenagers spend the better part of their time with peers who are also trying to harness their emotions and may not be able to offer useful support.

Put another way, how do you get your best friend to take your hot potato if she can barely manage the potatoes she’s already got?

When teenagers feel overwhelmed by their feelings and need to do something, they find a loving parent and start handing out potatoes. Lucky for your girl, but not so lucky for you. Parents on the receiving end of an externalization often don’t know what hit them.

For the most part, there’s not much that you can do about externalizations. You will rarely, if ever, be able to identify an externalization at the moment it occurs. And talking with your daughter about her behaviour won’t prevent her from doing it. Teens don’t consciously decide to externalize, so they can’t consciously decide not to. The process unfolds as rapidly for her as it does for you.

Even if you could talk your daughter into taking responsibility for all of her difficult feelings all of the time, would you want to? Your willingness to hold your daughter’s emotional hot potatoes from time to time is a thankless and charitable act, but it will help her get through some of the roughest patches of her adolescence. Given the opportunity to unload their discomfort, most teens will gather their resources and work through what went wrong, or discover, with the benefit of time, that the problem comes down to size on its own.

If you find yourself compelled into radical action after a brief but painful encounter with your daughter, I’ve got two words for you: do nothing. Though a teenager will experience her fight with a friend as a full-blown crisis, it’s our job as adults to remember that it’s not.

Talking with a trustworthy adult about what’s happening with your teenager is usually the perfect salve to the discomfort of being on the receiving end of an externalization. By sharing the situation with someone who isn’t holding an emotional hot potato, most parents start to see things more clearly and to regain an adult perspective on the problem. Sometimes another adult isn’t available or the content of the externalization feels too sensitive to be shared. Under these conditions – and absent pressing safety concerns – wait at least a day before taking any action. Waiting gives the hot potato time to cool and gives you and your daughter time to craft a rational plan.

And you’d be surprised by how rarely a plan even needs to be made once some time has passed.


Smart kids more likely to smoke weed & drink alcohol as teens

Children who do well in school are more likely to smoke weed and drink alcohol as teens and adults, but less likely to smoke cigarettes, according to a new study.

ts aim was to determine the link between childhood academic ability and the use of cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco in English teenagers.

Academic ability was defined in the study by results of a nationwide test taken by 11-year-olds which assessed their prowess in English, maths, and science. The research found that higher achieving children are more likely to smoke weed in their late teens than their peers.

The researchers also found these patterns persist into adulthood, refuting the notion that experimentation with drugs or alcohol in teen years is a ‘phase’.

Our finding that adolescents with high academic ability are less likely to smoke but more likely to drink alcohol regularly and use cannabis is broadly consistent with evidence base on adults,” read a statement from the researchers.

Smarter students being more open to experience is one of the possible explanations suggested by William and Hagger-Johnson for their findings, along with a more affluent lifestyle affording some students the opportunity to access drugs and alcohol.


Laughter Is a Better Social Lubricant Than Alcohol

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Scientists are finding how laughter — more so than alcohol — can be a great social lubricant. BPS reports that after laughing, people seem willing to divulge personal stories or quirks that they wouldn’t otherwise reveal.

In order to test this idea, Alan Gray and his team of researchers write:

“We tested this hypothesis experimentally by comparing the characteristics of self-disclosing statements produced by those who had previously watched one of three video clips that differed in the extent to which they elicited laughter and positive affect.”

The participants watched an “inoffensive observational comedy,” a clip from the nature documentary Planet Earth, or an instructional video on golfing. None of the clips was more or less positive than the last, but the comedy video differentiated itself by eliciting more laughter from participants.

After watching one of the three clips, the participants were instructed to write five pieces of personal information they were willing to share. Observers then rated how intimate these personal details were on a scale of one to 10. Researchers reviewed the observers’ ratings, and found that the comedy clips yielded more personal tales. For example, one participant in the comedy group wrote, “In January I broke my collarbone falling off a pole while pole dancing.”

The researchers believe “that this effect may be due, at least in part, to laughter itself and not simply to a change in positive affect.”

What’s more, when participants rated how intimate they thought their own writings were, compared to observers, they thought what they had disclosed was quite tame. This effect has led researchers to suggest that “laughter increases people’s willingness to disclose, but that they may not necessarily be aware that it is doing so.”

For businesses, you’ll be happy to hear that a recent study shows a meeting with laughter tends to garner more creative ideas.

Source: Bigthink

Extremely Positive People Aren’t as Good at Empathy.

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People with extremely sunny attitudes find it difficult to empathize with people who are recounting a negative experience, according to a study recently published at PLOS ONE. Ironically, positive people also reported being better at empathizing than did people who labelled themselves as slightly less than bubbly.

For the study, participants were shown videos of people telling life stories: two happy and two sad. The viewers were asked to rate, second-by-second, the level of positive or negative emotion they thought the speaker was feeling. Alex Fradera, at the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, describes the result:

“Participants with a more upbeat personality believed their accuracy on this task to be higher than others. However, the speakers had conducted an identical rating process on their own videos, and it turns out the happier participants were no closer to the true feelings than the more downbeat participants. In fact, happy participants found it harder to judge the emotional tone of a highly negative monologue, in which a participant described the death of a parent.”

Dev Patnaik, author and founder of Jump Associates, argues that empathy is not just a personal quality that we all (are blessed to) have. Empathy, he argues, is an essential business skill that corporations must possess to help their employees innovate and to create a loyal customer base.



Why People Use Information Avoidance to Choose Their Own Reality.

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Visualization of World Wide Web at London art conference.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University pinpointed the strategies that modern people rely on more and more to support their own versions of reality. On the surface, it may seem that rational people would always want to have more information, but that is often not the case. In fact, people actively avoid information that they feel might threaten their sense of wellbeing or happiness.

In a new paper that was published the Journal of Economic Literature, the team drew on cross-disciplinary research from economics, psychology and sociology to show how people use a variety of information avoidance strategies.

One way – by simply not obtaining available information. Just don’t ask for it. Another – people tend to only pay attention to the information that confirms what they already believe or is somehow making them feel good about themselves. The information that they’d rather see as untrue, people simply forget.

“The standard account of information in economics is that people should seek out information that will aid in decision-making, should never actively avoid information, and should dispassionately update their views when they encounter new valid information,” said the economics and psychology Professor George Loewenstein, the paper’s co-author who also co-founded the field of behavioral economics.

“But people often avoid information that could help them to make better decisions if they think the information might be painful to receive. Bad teachers, for example, could benefit from feedback from students, but are much less likely to pore over teaching ratings than skilled teachers,” Loewenstein explained.

When confronted with information they cannot just ignore, people still choose how to interpret it. They allow their biases to elevate questionable evidence if it agrees with their views and discount vigorously proven scientific evidence if it goes against their beliefs. 

There are also other real-world consequences to living in your own bubble and avoiding information. These are people who miss chances to catch and treat serious illnesses early or do not prepare financially for retirement. In what has been called “the ostrich effect” in behavioral finance, investors were found to check their online portfolios less frequently when the stock market was down.

The researchers see clear connections between their work and the political division currently plaguing American society, which is also undergoing a crisis of information. People are struggling to discern the truth between alternative facts, fake news, hacked emails and conspiracy theories.

“An implication of information avoidance is that we do not engage effectively with those who disagree with us,” said David Hagmann, a Ph.D. student involved in the research. “Bombarding people with information that challenges their cherished beliefs — the usual strategy that people employ in attempts at persuasion – is more likely to engender defensive avoidance than receptive processing. If we want to reduce political polarization, we have to find ways not only to expose people to conflicting information, but to increase people’s receptivity to information that challenges what they believe and want to believe.”

There are also some positive aspects to avoiding information. It’s a mental strategy that can help in certain situations. For instance, an athlete might not want to have too much information about competitors to not get psyched out. 

“People do it for a reason,” said Professor Golman, the paper’s other co-author. “Those who do not take a genetic test can enjoy their life until their illness can’t be ignored, an inflated sense of our own abilities can help us to pursue big and worthwhile goals, and not looking at our financial investments when markets are down may keep us from selling in a panic.”

The scientists see their research leading to better understanding by the government and any large organization looking to reach people most effectively.


9 Reasons Why Intelligent People Have Fewer Friends.

Intelligent people have less friends. The realer you are the fewer friends you have. Here’s why:

1. You’re liberated in your own speech, thoughts, and actions, which can be contrary to those of your “friends.”
You have a strong mindset and values. Your mind isn’t limited and you always have something to say. You think differently to others but you’re not bothered by their opinions on it.

2. You don’t have time for forced fake catch-ups or pointless conversations
, trying to keep up with what everyone is up to. So, you mostly spend time alone. You don’t care about the latest trends or latest music. You have no interest in materialistic things. You also don’t have FOMO (fear of missing out), so you’re quite content doing your own thing. Your world seems to flourish more on your own.

3. You can see beyond people’s “try hard” persona
so you distance yourself from people who aren’t worth your time. These people are what I like to call social climbers. They try to get involved with certain people for the sake of being popular or simply to look good (I have lost all faith in humanity).

4. You talk less and listen more
so you find yourself sitting back observing the norms of today: The constant posting on social media, backstabbing, unloyal partners and disrespectful behaviour. It puts you off because you’re far more mature. You see more to life. You believe in radiating the energy you want to be around. You are humble and encouraging to all but you don’t put your time and trust into people who don’t deserve it.

5. You don’t get involved in drama.
You don’t thrive off it like others do. Family is more important to you. You would rather watch an episode with your sister then go to a bar with the girls. The unnecessary drama that comes with a night out is exactly what you avoid because you know you’ll regret it when they instantly put you in a bad mood. You prefer doing things according to your own terms/will.

6. You don’t need to prove your worth to anyone.
You’re happy with yourself. You’re independent and strong. You don’t rely on others. You can support yourself. You don’t need to wake up to 10 snapchats or 300 Instagram likes to be able to smile every morning. You’re grateful for the little things. You don’t feel the need to be accepted by anyone but yourself.

7. You have already worked out who your real friends are
so you don’t feel the need to have any new ones. You are aware of who’s curious and who’s concerned. You are very cautious when letting people in your life unless someone throws your mind for a whirlwind and is as compatible as you. And by this I mean: thinks the same, expresses the same and has the same values. That’s the only time you let a new person in your life. But it still isn’t as easy as that. You still test them in situations to see if they really care about you as a person or if they just want to know your tricks of the trade.

8. You’re an old soul so you have visions for the future.
You feel uncomfortable telling your dreams to small minded people. You work hard to achieve your goals and you don’t have time for setbacks. While others are trying to plan their night out at the club, you’re grinding. You see more than just going to a club, you see a life you want to chase. Your focus is different. Your time is being invested on growth. You don’t expect people to understand what you’re up to. Eventually, they’ll see.

9. People see you as a threat because you keep to yourself.
Nevertheless, you have no fear in saying it straight or confronting someone when they’re out of line. You’re a force to be reckoned with. However, there are few that take you seriously and know how unique you are. These people are the ones you have time for and make effort with. You know what you bring to the table, and so this is why you’re not afraid to eat alone.


Do We Find People Who Swear More Honest? Yes, Says New Study.

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Italian actress Asia Argento poses as she arrives for the screening of the film ‘Zulu’ presented Out of Competition at the 66th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes.

Swearing is not an acceptable form of social discourse in most public situations. But impolite people who use profane language have been found to be more honest and trustworthy in a new study.

A three-part study was concluded with the appropriately titled paper “Frankly, we do give a damn: The relationship between profanity and honesty”, set to be published in the Journal of Psychological and Personality Science.

“Profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level, and with higher integrity at the society level,” write the researchers, led by Gilad Feldman of the Department of Work and Psychology in Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

What the scientists found was that people are more likely to swear to express themselves rather than to use the swearing as an attack on others. Interestingly, while liars were more likely to use third-person pronouns or negative words, honest people were more likely to resort to profanity.

The study consisted of analyzing responses of 276 participants on their use of swearing and their degree of honesty in various situations. In particular, the subjects were asked to relate how often they cursed, their favorite swear words, and their emotions during such moments.

Additionally, the study looked at status updates of 73,000 Facebook users around the world, investigating the frequency of profanity as well as pronouns that have been linked by previous studies to lying. They found that people who use profanity were generally more honest in Facebook status updates.

“There are two ways of looking at it. You might think if someone is swearing a lot, this is a negative social behaviour seen as a bad thing to do, so if someone swears they are probably a bad person as well. On the other hand, they are not filtering their language so they are probably also not putting their stories about what is going on through similar filters which might turn them into untruths. That is what we seemed to land on in this study, that people who use the language that comes to mind first are less likely to be playing games with the truth,” said the study’s co-author David Stillwell, from the University of Cambridge.

The researchers also conducted a study to compare integrity levels of American states with swearing frequency. To accomplish this, they relied on the 2012 Integrity Analyses of 48 U.S. states, carried out by the Center for Public Integrity. That report measured transparency and accountability in state governments. The researchers correlated the state data to swearing scores of individuals from their Facebook study and found a relationship between using more profanity and the integrity score of the state where that person lived.

Swearing has also been linked to higher verbal intelligence by previous research.

The researchers do warn that honesty in expression and honesty as an individual are not necessarily one and the same. You could certainly have someone who curses and commits crimes.


Attending to the Unconscious in a Psychotherapy Session.

Sigmund Freud postulated that for psychoanalysis to be effective, the client must share with the analyst all that crosses their mind during the course of the clinical hour. Whether their thoughts are deemed by them to be relevant and consequential or completely tangential and random, that the analyst needed access to that information to successfully understand the rest of the material presented in the session. This of course included feelings and thoughts about the analyst as a means of comprehending transferential issues at hand. Most contemporary analytic theories continue to support the importance of the client sharing associative thoughts, if perhaps with a bit less dogmatic demand.


One way to consider the relevance of this postulation, referred to as Freud’s fundamental rule, is to compare it to the associative details of a dream. Sometimes clients want to provide only the highlights of a dream; the story.

Client: “I had a dream last night where I was on this boat, but couldn’t stand to get to the sail. It was flapping in the wind making the ride so bumpy. The motion of the boat was making me so sick I just wanted to jump overboard. I literally still feel dizzy now.”

Therapist: “Tell me more about the dream. Start from the beginning.”

Client: “Oh no, it isn’t important, I was just thinking about it because I felt a bit dizzy when I sat down.”

Therapist: “Let’s imagine for a minute that it might be relevant to something you want us to think about today. Tell me about it.”

Client proceeds to report dream, with details, along with associations about details based on therapist probing. As the dream unfolds, some of the specifics (the boat’s cooler type) point to a particular sailing trip he took with his father in the year after his mother died, where he felt particularly shamed by his father about his distraction and inattention. Nausea was and continues to be a common response to feelings of shame for this client.

The random detail of the cooler was able to bring his father to mind, and man who did a very poor job of helping his son deal with the death of his mother. While the client had never been close with his father, he needed him desperately once his mother had died and did everything he could to align himself with the dad and try to please him. Above all things, he avoided making his father angry. The thing that made his father the most angry was when his son was angry or challenged him in any way. The result was that the son worked hard to swallow his anger, which my client instead experienced as nausea. When his father would shame him, which he did routinely, instead of feeling angry which could threaten his much needed relationship with the father, he felt both nauseous, and suicidal.

Suicidality in the face of a recent loss to death is not just the wish to be dead, but the wish to join the person who has recently died. In dream analysis, bodies of water are frequently associated with the mother, her womb and/or her body. Hence his wish to manage his nausea in the dream, by jumping into the water, is his desire to escape his father, and return to his mother, in the womb or in death.

His nausea upon sitting down on the couch, is that upon entering his therapy session, his unconscious wanted to alert him to his anger towards his father, disguised as nausea, that he and his therapist had been trying over the months to access and unpack together. The dream had been brought on by a conversation he had the night before with his father, and that he was not yet aware had left him hurt and angry. The nausea upon entering the session was his red flag to bring up the dream, so that he could gain access to his inner turmoil. The particular cooler in the dream was the clue that pointed to the father and help us unravel the dreams content.

Most folks have heard of the term “free association.” It is both a technique, and more broadly, a concept. The technique is a therapist offering up a list of words that a client responds to with the first word that comes into their head. But more broadly, it is the meat and potatoes of every session. A skilled analytically oriented therapist is listening all the time for links and associations between topics, feelings, thoughts, gestures in both the client and themselves.

Upon entering a session, clients frequently make statements they want to view as simply conversational and separate from their clinical content. They mention the congested traffic; unaware they are commenting on their internal state. They ask if their therapist changed something in the office; alerting us to their anxiety that we might be different than they expect us to be. They tell us they need to eat their sandwich, communicating emotional hunger they fear will be left dissatisfied.

I know, I know, many of you will refute these statements are meaningful revelations about the internal state of the clients’ world. And alone, I would never interpret them, either to myself or to the client, just as I would never assume a body of water in a dream is the mother or her body. These little clues, associations, messages from the unconscious, are meant to be noted, and then watched in the course of the session. If relevant, they will join with other fragments of the session to reveal a picture, a story, a connection of truths, for our work as clinicians is to develop the skills necessary to note and pull together the fragments of unconscious communication so we may offer them to our client for their examination.

Another example.

The client is telling us about a conversation they had with their ex. There is a long silence in the session.

Therapist: Can you say what is happening for you right now?

Client: Nothing. I just got distracted.

Therapist: Tell me what you were thinking about.

Client: Ugh, it is too embarrassing. I was just making a list some stuff I need to get from the store on the way home.

Therapist: And what is on the list?

Client: Hahaha. Some shampoo, dishwashing liquid, and carpet cleaner.

Now a client who has been in therapy for a while with a clinician who desires access to unconscious materiel would have known to offer up the list making distraction without probing. If we can imagine that whatever we are discussing, the conscious mind has primary control of the conversation. If we are discussing the kind of topics we typically explore in therapy, the unconscious mind is just as present. The only way the unconscious mind can take control of the conversation is by forcing us to fall asleep and thereby dream. Otherwise it must insert itself. A primary it inserts itself is through “distracting” thoughts. Remember, the unconscious speaks through symbols.

So, our client who was talking about her ex has lots of mixed feelings about her ex. She has been struggling to understand why she continues to be so preoccupied with him. Her conscious mind doesn’t get why she isn’t ready to let him go. Perfect reason to keep an ear out for what the unconscious mind might be able to tell us about why she is stuck in her process.

Here is what her unconscious offered up to help her understand her distress. First: list making. We make lists when we feel disorganized, overwhelmed, out of control. Again, just because someone is making a list in their head shouldn’t lead the therapist to the conclusion that is what is going on. But between the therapist’s history and knowledge of this client and issues surrounding their ex, the list-making as an indicator of internal chaos was reasonable enough possibility to present it to the client who was able to confirm that she had begun to feel overwhelmed and internal disorganized while talking about her ex.

The other detail that the unconscious offered up is that all the items she listed were cleaning supplies. Now certainly one could argue, as clients often do, that she had that list in her head long before the session, the list likely has many more items, that were not readily available to her mind, because this particular thought surfaced for a reason, and offered up the items on her list that might us help discern her internal state. Again, based on clinical experience with this client and the topic of her ex, the therapist speculated with the client if the conversation about her ex was making her feel dirty, or somehow unclean. The client burst into tears. Over the remaining hour, and many proceeding sessions, the client was able to talk about having felt pressured to engage in sexual activities outside her interests and comfort zone with her ex that left her feeling humiliated for “dirtying herself” (her language) for someone who “still” left her.

The unconscious mind routinely attempts to insert itself into our conscious thought throughout our day, in the form of Freudian Slips, where we mean to say one thing but accidentally say something else, through song lyrics that get stuck in our heads, day dreams, or remembering something important in the middle of a conversation about something else. Unless we are someone who actively attended to unconscious communication, most of these clues to the burdens of our soul go unattended.

The unconscious, savvy as it is, understand that a therapy session, with an unconscious focused therapist, is a worthy place to try to get seen. From thoughts on the way to therapy, opening statements upon entering the session, “casual” questions to the therapist, “different” topics brought into the same session, “random” comments made about a beverage in the session, a purse zipper, seeing a possible bug out of the corner of their eye… everything! In the short span of 50 minutes, the unconscious is making its efforts to be seen, by the client, and by us.

A third example

During the prior week there is a scheduling mistake that is the fault of the therapist. It makes for a significant inconvenience for the client, including being unable to attend a session that week. At the start of the session there is an effort on the therapist’s part to discuss the incident. The client insists it is unproblematic and “no big deal.” This following is the next topic the client brings to the session.

Client: I went to see my Doctor last week. He is such an idiot. He can’t even remember what he was treating me for. I wanted to be like “Didn’t you pay attention in school?”

Hear the rage and hostility. The client doesn’t know it is about us. They were sincere when they said it was “no big deal.” We likely don’t want to know it is about us either. We might even try to sympathize with them, or try to help them figure out if they are getting the right medical help.

We would have to be bold, and have enough of a relationship established with the client, but the right clinical move is to help the client know that we are the “Doctor” they are talking about (even if we don’t have a Doctorate). Even though they rejected our suggestion earlier that they might be angry, we have some “evidence” now and can help them see the parallels through the details of the story they just reported to the incident with us.

Anytime a client is talking about medical professionals, professors, or other authority figures, we should be listening for transferential themes.


If clients just need to think through something with someone, they don’t need a therapist. They can take a long walk, or talk to a friend or counselor (as opposed to a psychotherapist), meditate, or journal. Knowing one’s conscious mind is hard, but not what you pay a therapist big bucks for. What we can offer clients is access to a whole other part of them that is struggling right along with them, with every single one of their meaningful issues. Just as they spend their days trying to unravel their thoughts and feelings about complex emotional issues, their unconscious is trying to do the same thing.

The reason some of us are estranged from our unconscious, is it speaks in coded, symbolic language. It is by design veiled to protect us from information and truths that may be difficult to handle. But in its effort to be engaged, heard, appeased, attended to, it will sabotage, misdirect, and resist our conscious efforts until it is assured its needs be meet.

Clients often come to us with issues they believe defy reason. They insist that their behaviors and feelings make no sense and that they simply don’t understand why they keep doing the same thing. There is a good answer. And their unconscious holds the clues.

Smith is the founder/director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which offers clinical services with seasoned, cultural competent clinicians throughout Philadelphia and the surrounding areas.

Why long-distance runners make the best partners

Male long-distance runners are not only fitter than most they are likely to have the best genes

 Long distance runners like Mo Farah are likely to have good genes
Long distance runners like Mo Farah are likely to have good genes
Women searching for a father for their children should pick long-distance runners as they are more likely to have stronger sex drives and higher sperm counts, Cambridge University has found.

Just a day after marathon runners were shown to be smarter, it also seems that endurance athletes have higher ‘reproductive potential’ and are a good bet when choosing a mate.

Researchers say that good runners are likely to have had ancestors who were excellent hunters and would therefore have had the pick of the females, creating a biological advantage for their descendants and passing on the best genes.

The researchers studied 542 runners at the Robin Hood marathon in Nottingham, noting down their finish times and recording the length of their fingers.

Previous studies have shown that men whose ring finger is longer than their index finger were exposed to more testosterone in the womb which increases sperm count and sex drive, boosts heart health and conveys manly characteristics such as facial hair and a deeper voice.

They found that the 10 per cent of men with the most masculine digit ratios were, on average, 24 minutes and 33 seconds faster than the 10 per cent of men with the least masculine digit ratios, suggesting that those who were better runners also had increased fertility.

“The observation that endurance running ability is connected to reproductive potential in men suggests that women in our hunter-gatherer past were able to observe running as a signal for a good breeding partner,” said the study’s lead author Dr Danny Longman.

“It was thought that a better hunter would have got more meat, and had a healthier – and larger – family as a consequence of providing more meat for his family.

“But hunter-gatherers may have used egalitarian systems with equal meat distribution as we see in remaining tribes today. In which case more meat is not a factor, but the ability to get meat would signal underlying traits of athletic endurance, as well as intelligence – to track and outwit prey – and generosity – to contribute to tribal society. All traits you want passed on to your children,” he said.

The most successful prehistoric men were likely to have been persistence hunters who basically stalked their prey until it gave up from sheer exhaustion.

“Humans are hopeless sprinters but are fantastically efficient long-distance runners, comparable to wolves and wild coyotes,” added Dr Longman.

“You can still see examples of persistence hunting in parts of Africa and Mexico today. Hunters will deliberately choose the hottest time of day to hunt, and chase and track an antelope or gnu over 30 to 40 kilometres for four or five hours.

“The animal recovers less and less from its running until it collapses exhausted and is easy to kill.”

The correlation was also found in women, but was much more pronounced in men, suggesting a stronger evolutionary selection in men for running ability.

The 10 per cent of women with the most masculine digit ratios were, on average, 11 minutes and 59 seconds faster than the 10 per cent with the least masculine.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Division of Biological Anthropology and is published in the journal PLOS ONE.


Do Women Really Value Income over Looks in a Mate?

Article Image
Multiethnic couple of lovers hugging under the umbrella on a rainy day.

Economists love online dating websites, not to find the love of their lives (although they might be doing that) but because they provide an opportunity to observe a fascinating market in action: the market for marriage. From this market we can determine what individual preferences are for a mate, and this can be extremely useful in economic analysis.

If we can’t directly observe the market for a mate, we only really have two options if we want to determine people’s preferences: ask people their preferences or observe the outcome of the market. Neither one of these options is satisfactory though.

For example, you might ask, “On a scale of one to ten, how important is it that your mate is the same race as you?” This is an interesting question because we observe surprising few mixed race marriages in the census data and finding out why is informative (we will definitely return to the question of same-race preference in a future post). The problem with this approach is that people either lack self-awareness or tend to not to be very honest in their answers. This doesn’t just apply to the question of race but about other characteristics as well.

An economist could look instead at people who are already married and try to determine their preferences that way, but this doesn’t work very well either. Let me give you an example. Suppose I have evidence that women with breasts that are smaller than average are more often married to men who are below average height. Does this information tell us that small-breasted women prefer shorter men? Of course it doesn’t. One possible alternative is that all women prefer taller men and that taller men prefer large-breasted women. If this was the case, then at the close of the market smaller-breasted women only have an option to choose shorter men. It is a silly example but it does demonstrate the point that we can’t tell much about preferences for a mate simply by observing people who are already matched.

Really what we want to do is observe people’s choices directly which is why dating websites are so useful to us. Here’s an example. What if I have a hypothesis that when choosing a mate, men care more about their potential partner’s appearance than her income and women care more about her potential partner’s income than his appearance. Imagine the following experiment. A woman/man can choose between communicating with two people. One earns $60,000 a year and is more attractive than 9 out of 10 people on the market. The other earns X dollars per year and is less attractive than 9 out of 10 people on the market. Every other observable characteristic about these two people is identical. We can use the information that tells us who individuals choose to communicate with to determine what X would have to be in order to make a woman/man prefer the less attractive person.

Researchers have done this* and find that for men there is no amount of income that the woman in the bottom ten percent in terms of appearance can earn to make men prefer her over women in the top 10 percent. That is, looks really matter to men relative to income. For women though, if the man in the bottom ten percent in terms of looks earns more than $248,500, they will prefer him over the more attractive guy earning $60,000. My students often interpret this result as saying that women really care about money, but that is not what it says at all—$186,000 is a huge difference in income. If women didn’t care about looks and only cared about money, the figure would be much, much lower. This says that despite the impression that on the marriage market women really care about income, the evidence suggest that they also care about looks. They just care about income too.

I know what you are thinking: that there is more to finding a partner than looks and income. True, true, but dating websites don’t let you filter your searches by the way he tilts his head when he laughs or her affection for slap-stick humor. When they do, maybe even I will think about giving them a try.


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