Author Archives: TimesAdmin

The Force at the Flics: A Review of Star Wars

by Alvin G. Burstein

Like, apparently most of America, I was caught up in the hoopla that attended the announcement that they were back: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, the whole Camelot assembly. And like, apparently most of America, I rushed to see the new movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. My reaction is mixed.

The film, viewed with its 3D glasses, has a massive visual impact, augmented by a booming soundtrack. And although Chewbacca seems to be ageless, there was something engaging about seeing Han and Leia showing their thirty years.

What the film’s director/writer, J. J. Abrams, has done is to have repackaged pieces of the original trilogy. The story opens with an orphaned outlander acquiring a droid that conceals a vital bit of information—sound familiar? The orphan, Rey, is repackaged as a woman scavenger and the droid, BB-8, every bit as cute and beepy as R2-D2, propels itself on a roller ball rather than the two legs of the older model. But BB-8 has the same puppy dog, follow you-home personality as its predecessor.

There is also the interplanetary bar scene populated by a variety of exotic unhuman types with unsavory vocations and unattractive habits. And the Millennian Falcon retains its entertaining combination of ramshackle but remarkable performance.

It’s all there and quite entertaining.

And yet there is a hollowness in the plotting that leaves me feeling like artistry has been displaced by prospect of preparing for a sequel.

What made the original tale so compelling was its reference to the Oedipal theme of Luke’s relationship to his father. Murderous striving is dissolved as Luke matures into an adulthood powerful enough to try to rescue his weakened father. Further, Luke’s power is rooted in a mastery developed in his relationship with Obi Wan and Yoda, male mentors that foster and contribute to his slow and painful efforts to grow rather than seeing them as a challenge—a promise that there can be good enough fathering as well as mothering.

In this sequel Rey, whom this sequel hints will become the first female Jedi knight, displays instinctive powers, unearned by laborious apprenticeship. She bests Ren, Darth Vader’s grandson and successor as an evil force, in a light saber duel. Earlier she spontaneously exhibits mind control powers that Luke had to struggle to achieve. Even her companion/protector, Finn, finds himself able to snatch up Luke’s old light saber and challenge, though unsuccessfully, Ren. For them, potential knighthood seems to come easily, rather than requiring a struggle to develop.

Finn is perhaps the most interesting character in this tale, the only one that shows real change. He makes the transition from being a frightened escapee whose only concern is to protect himself to that of a person capable of heroic self-sacrifice. I was left wanting to see more of him, and I suspect therein lies some frankly commercial artistry.

In the original tale Leia seeks to locate Obi Wan, one of the last of the Jedi, in order to save the Republic from being overwhelmed by the Empire. Here Rey enlists Han and others in the search for the new last of the Jedi, Luke.

Luke, like Obi Wan, has buried himself in obscurity. When Rey finally finds him, the immediate threat from the Empire’s successor, the First Order, has already been defused—and in the same way as the Empire’s Death Star. The movie ends with Luke’s turning to face Rey who offers him his light saber.

Will Luke accept it to become Rey’s Obi Wan? Will Ren, whom the evil Supreme Leader Snoke has ordered be brought to him, become the new Darth Vader? What role in Rey’s life will Finn play when he recovers? For that matter, who will Chewbacca and the droids partner with?

Are we being set up for something? Will the Force protect us?

A Wing and a Prayer: Too Big to Fail? Review of It’s A Wonderful Life

by Alvin G. Burstein

With Christmas approaching, I found myself wanting to re-view the 1946 film, It’s A Wonderful Life. It is said to be director Frank Capra’s favorite film, one that he screened for his family each Christmas season. Not just Capra’s favorite, it is listed as the most inspirational American film of all time, one that you will almost certainly have a chance to view this season.

I found it on Amazon, happily still in black and white, the format reinforcing the film’s evocation of an earlier time in our county. Or maybe more accurately, no time, a perennial moment.

The film begins oddly, with a celestial conversation. Angels represented as cartoonish stars are discussing the immanent suicide of the protagonist George Bailey. An intern angel, Clarence, one still lacking wings, is assigned to save Bailey, thus earning his wings. The frank irreality of this introduction contrasts with the black and white everydayness of what follows. Like the formulaic “once upon a time,” it is an effective invocation to suspend disbelief, an announcement that what follows is a parable rather than a history.

To prepare Clarence, he is shown flashbacks of George’s life, which we share as the opening movement of the story. George’s leit motif is altruism, what in Freudian terms would be called moral masochism. He saves his younger brother from drowning at the cost of losing his hearing in one ear. He forestalls a fatal mistake by a local pharmacist and is wrongfully punished. Most poignantly, he relinquishes his dreams of leaving the dusty little town of Bedford Falls for travel and education so that his younger brother can so indulge while George takes the place of their father in the family savings and loan business.

This last sacrifice is the crux of the tale. In Bedford Falls, George’s father has dedicated himself to a communitarian effort to help people own their own homes. His opposite number is Henry Potter, grasping, devious and selfish, who seeks control of the town and his own enrichment. When George’s father dies, George deliberately abandons his dreams, successfully replacing his father as the town’s bulwark against Potter’s schemes.

Two events trigger a catastrophic eruption: George’s dotty uncle, employed at the family savings and loan, misplaces eight thousand dollars needed to avoid bankruptcy and one of George’s children becomes ill. Hitherto generous and loving George explodes in rageful recriminations and abuse, terrifying his family and friends. Raddled with anger, shame and guilt, George prays fruitlessly for help and is on the verge of throwing himself to his death in the town’s wintery waters.

The prayers George thought fruitless were those that occasioned intern angel Clarence’s assignment. Clarence forestalls the suicide and undertakes to persuade George that his life was worth living by creating an alternate reality, one in which George had never been born. George learns what Bedford Falls would have been without him: a trashy Pottersville unhappily peopled.

George begs for a second chance and is transported back to a reality where he joyfully finds his wife, family and friends working to fend off the impending bankruptcy. An outpouring of grateful financial contributions from the beneficiaries of his caring life saves him and the family business. Surrounded by a laudatory crowd his friendships make him the richest man in Bedford Falls-and Clarence earns his angelic wings. The film is a moral parable, a psychoanalytic one and an existential one. Morally, it affirms the value of communitarianism over unbridled capitalism.

Psychoanalytically, it highlights the potential for disruptions in a false self, one that disowns a vital personal agenda thus generating a disavowed part of the self and a consequent potential for eruption.

Its existential message is that we are not alone in an uncaring world-or so we hope.

Out of the Past, Thundering Hoof Beats: Review of Bridge of Spies

by Alvin G. Burstein

Holy Moley, a thriller without special effects, splattered gore or colliding cars!

Much makes this Spielberg/Hanks movie both remarkable and memorable. It deftly recreates the 1950’s and 60’s, when Kruschev and Eisenhower were fumbling on the edge of open conflict and the Berlin wall was going up.

Early in the film we see a painter doing a self-portrait. We see the painter, the mirror image he is using as a model, and the image he is creating on canvas—a distinctively Spielbergian gesture calling our attention to the complexity of reality.

The painter turns out to be Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Russian spy. He is arrested and James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer, is appointed to defend him. Donovan is reluctant on two grounds: lack of experience in criminal work and concern over the impact on his family of his involvement in a politically unpopular effort—defending an enemy. He reluctantly agrees to accept the responsibility because of his ethical commitment to the principle that everyone is entitled to a defense. Not the sham of a defense, but the best possible defense.

When his client is convicted, Donovan persuades the judge not to impose the death penalty. Despite pressure from colleagues and from the judge to be content with ritual efforts, he continues to fight hard for his client, appealing the conviction to the Supreme Court, arguing that Able is a loyal fighter for his own country, not a traitor to ours, and protesting the legality of evidence against him, seized without a warrant. The appeal is lost.

A few years later, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia, and its pilot, Gary Powers (Austin Stowel) captured by the Russians. Donovan is recruited to go to East Berlin and negotiate for the exchange of Abel for Powers. To avoid admitting American involvement in spying on Russia, he must represent himself as a private citizen, not a U. S. official.

Donovan learns that, in addition to Powers being held by the Russians, the East Germans have jailed an American student, Frederick Pryor (Will Rogers), as a spy. During the negotiations, Donovan, against pressure from the CIA that he not do so, ups the ante, saying that the exchange must be two for one: Powers and Pryor for Abel. The situation is complicated by East German insistence on demonstrating autonomy from both the United States and the Russia.

The heart pounding climax of the film is the scene of Donovan and Abel waiting on one side of the Glienicke Bridge near Potsdam with Powers and his captors on the other. The Russians press for Abel to cross over immediately. Donovan insists on waiting until they hear that the East German government has brought Pryor to checkpoint Charlie and his freedom.

Building from the moment of Donovan’s arrival in East Germany, the uncertainties of a deal constantly on the verge of collapse because of the competing motivations of the parties involved generate tension which, in the final scene, explodes from the cerebral to the visceral.

What especially recommends this film to me is its presentation of Donovan as a genuine hero, a person who eschews personal safety, convenience and popular pressure to adhere to principle.

If you watched the Lone Ranger as a kid, you will love this film. Everyone deserves a defense, and we need heroes
to admire.

Dealing With The Devil: A Review of Black Mass

by Alvin G. Burstein

The biopic’s title prepares us for a consideration of moral perversion. Johnnie Depp’s chilling portrayal of James (Whitey) Bulger, the Boston mob boss, his bloody career, and his relationship with the FBI provide that opportunity, raising questions, some of which go unanswered.

The film describes Bulger’s transition from a member of the Winter Hill mob of “Southies,” Boston toughs at war with the Italian mafia centered in north Boston, to a crime kingpin in that city, one whose odious tentacles extended abroad. His success, perverse indeed, was grounded in his murky collaboration with the FBI as much as in his elaborate murderous sadism.

From a dramatic point of view, Depp’s depiction of Bulger is extraordinarily effective. I find myself feeling an unreasoning reluctance to suggest an Oscar because of the evil of his creation. And the film director’s blood-splattered horror scenes of torture and murder will doubtless gratify any inhibited or displaced aggressive drives in eager audiences.

From a psychodiagnostic point of view, the movie poses a question about whether the portrayed Bulger is a psychopath, a person without the capacity for empathy and lacking a moral sense or whether he is a sociopath, someone whose morality is deviant, a person whose social surround and consequent morality deviates from that of the larger society.

Many of Bulger’s associates would appear to merit the second diagnosis: sociopath. They are loyal to their fellow crooks, see law enforcement as the enemy, and the larger society as naïve in its inhibitions. Bulger himself, despite the film’s nod in the direction of his having a love for his mother and his son, violates a basic law of his deviant tribe by becoming what the FBI called “a top echelon informant.” In that capacity, he was later claimed to have contributed to the conviction of many members of the mafia. But he also escaped prosecution (until many years later) for serious crimes of his own.

A central question raised by these anomalies is the degree to which the FBI itself displays a kind of sociopathic readiness to collaborate in some criminal activities, perhaps even murder, in order to pursue other illegal practices. In the film, the FBI’s collusion with Bulger is regarded as the work of a few bad apples, but some commentators have suggested that a code of silence operates at the FBI level as well. Some have suggested that the Bulger’s success in avoiding capture for a decade and a half was due to the desire by the FBI to avoid questions about a practice instituted by J. Edgar Hoover in 1961, to develop “live sources within the upper echelon of the organized hoodlum element.”

The film does not go deeply into two fascinating loyalty issues. One is the tie between John Connolly and Whitey Bulger. Connolly was a fellow Southie who joined the FBI and who recruited Bulger as an informant. Connolly was one of the few of Bulger’s associates who did not agree to testify against his old buddy in return for a reduction of sentence. Like Bulger, Connolly is still in jail. And then there is Bulger’s younger brother, Billy. A long-time member of the state senate, Billy went on to become president of the University of Massachusetts. When it became clear that he had been lying to investigators about being in touch with his fugitive brother, he was forced to step down. What he has said about Whitey is, “…I cared about him deeply and I still do.” There is no indication that he ever suggested to his brother that he turn himself in.

One is left wondering about how Whitey, the sadistic murderer, feels about them.

Looking Back At Lucy: A Review

by Alvin G. Burstein

The movie takes an intriguing theme, evolution’s goal, adds glitzy special effects, a heady mix of exotic locations, and invokes three solid thespian performances, but manages, nevertheless, to disappoint me.

Without turning a hair, Morgan Freeman, as Professor Norman, gives us a Nobel quality neuroscientist who is loveably warm and wise. Scarlett Johanssen, as Lucy, adroitly manages the transition from terrified victim to super-heroine with just an edge of humor. Amr Waked, as Del Rio, is a wonderfully Gallic flic whose hormones barely manage not to dislocate his professionalism.

The plot involves Lucy’s stumbling into a situation where she becomes an involuntary mule forced by a nefarious Korean drug lord to smuggle a new drug, CPH4, across international borders. The drug is a synthetic form of a human hormone said to power the developmental spurt during the sixth week of pregnancy. The drug packet, surgically buried in Lucy’s abdomen, leaks triggering an unprecedented increase in Lucy’s brain potential. What ensues is a race between the drug lord’s no-holds-barred effort to recover the drug and Lucy’s development of unimaginable mental ability to control her body and her environment.

The staging begins with the pre-historic Lucy, the first hominid, drinking out of a stream, using her hand to scoop up water. Inter-cut with this are scenes of Professor Norman lecturing on the evolution of the human nervous system. The point of his lecture is that the earliest humans used a small fraction of their brain potential, and that evolutionary progress in the animal kingdom involves a progressive increase it that fraction. Modern humans use perhaps a fifth of their mental capacity. Norman opines that evolutionary increase in that fraction will endow humans with amazing abilities.

That story line shifts to the events in which Lucy is forced to have the packet of CPH4 inserted into her body, its leakage and her development of those amazing abilities. She has the capacity to control her bodily processes and her environment, but she is left unemotional, in fact, robotic.

She commits herself, with the help of Del Rio and the police, to disrupting the smugglers’ plans and reaches out to Norman for his participation in gaining control of what is happening to her.

The core of the film contains high action chase sequences and shoot-outs. In the finale, Del Rio manages to kill the drug lord, and Lucy’s body disappears morphing into a series of amorphous interconnections with vast computers in Norman’s laboratory. The mass extends a finger drive to Norman—think of DaVinci’s God reaching out to Adam in the Sistine Chapel—presumably endowing him with what she has learned. Del Rio cries out asking where Lucy is. A message appears on his cell phone: I am everywhere.

This ambitious film is marred by several fumbles. Among those is its heavy reliance on the neuro-babble falsehood our species utilizes only a fraction of its brain power, and bio-babble about miracle hormones. Another is the glossing over of improbable events: Lucy’s walking into a hospital operating room with pistol in her hand without being stopped, the implausibility of a Korean drug lord with an unchecked martial potential exceeding that of the Mafia, to mention a few.

The original African Lucy is usually regarded as the mother of our human species. The eponymous Lucy must be taken as fostering the next stage of human development. I was most disappointed in the film’s failure to raise the unspoken questions. Does evolution imply improvement? Is an emotionless, non-material being more human? Is it a better human? Is it more god-like?

Stress As Positive – 2

Last month we started a review of recent research that suggests that stress has some positive benefits. Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Stanford psychologist, is researching this topic for a new book she is writing. McGonigal’s approach is to promote the idea that the harmful consequences of stress may simply be a consequence of our perception that it is bad for our health. Among the studies discussed last month were the U of Wisconsin study of 29,000 respondents and a larger epidemiological study of nearly 186 million. In general people who reported high levels of stress but who felt it had little impact on their health were amongst the least likely to die as compared to other participants in the study.

In a prospective study, Dr. Michael Poulin of the University of Buffalo interviewed 850 people (34 to 93) living in Detroit, asking about major stressful events in the last year and how much time they spent in the last year actively helping others. Obituaries and death records were then tracked over the next 5 years. Dr. Poulin’s team found that every major stress event increased an individual’s risk of death by 30%. But high rates of helping others reduced the stress-induced mortality risk. So, the authors concluded that helping others is a possible antidote to the negative effects of stress.

Looking more directly at how stress can be positive, a 2013 study out of UC Berkeley showed that moderate stress can lead to cell growth in a rat’s brain learning centers. Adult rats were stressed by being immobilized in a small space for 3 hours. Two weeks later, the rats were given a fear-conditioning test. The immobilized rats showed an increased level of stress hormone corticosterone (rate equivalent to cortisol in humans) as well as an increased growth of neural stem cells in the hippocampus.

To put the information into better context: these studies do not really prove that stress is positive. They do show the benefits of doing things to manage one’s stress, such as helping others and how that can lead to positive benefits that can counter the negative effects of a major stressful life event. Some of the studies, such as the 2013 UC Berkeley study, are defining “stress” slightly differently from the host of studies that relate the health dangers of stress. The big difference is those studies that associate stress with health risk are looking at chronically high levels of stress not a 2 or 3 hour learning session, which is considered mildly stressful because any thinking increases cortisol. But, since we cannot go around all the time without thinking, it seems best to think of mild stress as a positive and chronic stress as harmful as what you need to manage by balancing it with relaxation, exercise, sleep, meditation, and many good works for others.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, September 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

Creepy Crawly

A review of Ant-Man
by Alvin G. Burstein

Dr. Pym is a scientist who has developed a secret particle that makes objects shrink by reducing inter-molecular space. Because, like atomic weaponry, the discovery will change the nature of warfare in frighteningly unpredictable ways, he guards the secret. A one-time protégé, Dr. Cross (double?), has ousted Pym from control of the latter’s company, and is seeking to discover the secret and sell it to the highest bidder for rewards that are more than financial, they involve world domination. Because of his age Dr. Pym is no longer able to utilize his discovery; he cannot himself become the Ant-Man. So Pym recruits a convicted burglar, Scott Lang, to work with him and his gorgeous daughter, Hope.

Scott is to don the Ant-Man suit, learn to master its potential—augmented by a crash course in martial arts taught by Hope—with the aim of frustrating Cross’s nefarious scheme. That need is critical because Cross has succeeded in developing an anti-super hero: The Yellow Jacket, and is about to close his megalomaniacal deal.

Scott, desperately trying to go straight in order to restore his relationship to his almost too adorable pre-school daughter, is manipulated into the illegalities required to foil Cross. He is aided in his efforts by a Keystone Kops crew of unreformed felons and hordes of Formicae. There are predictably breathtaking battles, hair-breadth escapes and nods to other Marvel comics super-heroes.

Thinking of this film in terms of genre is interesting. In an Aristotelian sense the film is a comedy. The important characters invite us to feel superior, to look down on them. Scott is a crook, his fellow crooks are bumblers, Pym is enfeebled by age, Cross is corrupt.

The audience laughs as Scott fumbles through his Ant-Man training; when Cross meets his doom, we feel smug satisfaction, not the surge of pity and fear occasioned by tragedy visited upon those we admire.

The emotional catharsis, the psychological release, provided by Ant-Man is more related to schadenfreude, feeling superior in the context of misfortune involving someone else. That seems an ironic twist in a tale devoted, not just to heroes, but to heroes in spades, super-heroes.

The film is visually impressive, and has a self-mocking humor that Paul Rudd, playing Scott, demonstrated mastery of in his earlier parodic effort, The Interview. Unlike the protagonist in that film, a spoof about North Korea’s Great Leader, here Scott also shows a lovable side in his devotion to his daughter and in his loyalty to Pym.

And he gets the girl.

An audience looking for dazzling special effects and inside humor will enjoy this film. I found it a bit frothy. It leaves some sci-fi intricacies of internal space underutilized, and some questions of human/non-human differences unexplored. I was struck by the irony of super-hero being an Ant-man while the ants in the film function as servants, slaves to their human master.

From a psychodynamic point of view, Ant-Man’s heroics have an essential psychological hollowness, a weakness of other members of the super-hero genre. After all, super-heroes are inherently implausible.

Self psychology argues for the gradual de-idealization of the parental imago—our first omnipotent, omniscient super-hero figure—into an important element of the self: the ability to admire mentors, to look up to figures that help shape our aspirations. As we mature, the capacity for realistic admiration, can link to healthy self-esteem, the outcome of developmentally tamed infantile self-centeredness. Looking up to others and healthy self-esteem, in tandem fuel valuable activities, actions aimed at important contributions to the well-being of others, and to human culture.

Super-heroes may furnish material for primitive fantasy; they fail to constructively shape our being, to help us become our best selves.

Stress as Positive

Recent research suggests that stress has some positive benefits. This should not be a surprise if you realize that a big part of being human is having a nervous system that allows us to use and manage our stress. After all, would we even be able to exist without a “flight or fight” reaction? Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University psychologist who translates academic research into practical strategies for health, is looking at the “upside of stress.” Her example, however, of how stress benefits daredevils like aerialist Nik Wallenda and Evel Knievel, may go a bit too far in the opposite direction.

In his career, Evel attempted more than 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps between 1965 and 1980. He suffered more than 433 bone fractures his career. Knievel died of pulmonary disease in Clearwater, Florida, aged 69. I am not sure that adrenalin junkies are good examples of perceiving stress positively. On the other hand, we are all familiar with the inverted U relationship between anxiety and performance where too little and too much anxiety interferes with performance but some anxiety (or in this case – stress) can be helpful.

McGonigal’s approach is to promote the idea that the harmful consequences of stress may simply be a consequence of our perception that it is bad for our health. McGonigal reviewed several studies that suggested stress may actually be correlated with longevity – if a person does not view it as a negative. Researchers at the U. of Wisconsin in Madison asked 29,000 people to rate their level of stress over the past year and to rate how much (a little, moderate amount, or a lot) they believed this stress influenced their health. Public death records were reviewed for the next 8 years to see how many of the subjects died. People who reported high levels of stress and who believed stress had a lot of impact on their health had a 43% increased risk of death. Those who reported high levels of stress but who felt it had little impact on their health were amongst the least likely to die as compared to other participants in the study.

Another study looked at the perception that stress affects health and its relation to mortality. 33.7% of nearly 186 million Americans believe that stress affects their health a lot. Those people who reported a lot of stress and a belief in the high impact of stress on their health had a 43% increased risk of premature death according to Keller et al (Health Psychol. 2012 Sept; 31(5):677-84).

Next month, we will look at other studies that suggest it is better to view stress as “mostly harmless” like the entry for Earth in the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, August 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

X Marks the Spot: A Review of Ex Machina

by Alvin G. Burstein

As a fan of RoboCop flicks, I looked forward to this film. Ex Machina explores the same question as RoboCop: the difference between man and machine. That exploration puts it in an established genre, one occupied not only by its predecessor, but by Collodi’s Pinocchio, who hungers to be a real boy, and by Star Trek’s Lt. Commander Data, who struggles to feel emotion and to understand jokes.

This movie explores the question with considerably less violence than RoboCop, but with an ending that is more suspenseful, and raises questions that, if not more profound, are more complex.

A young programmer, Caleb at the mega data firm Blue Book is recruited to spend a week at the mountain retreat of Blue Book’s genius owner, Nathan. There he learns that he has the assignment of applying Turing’s test to an embodied computer, Ava. The issue is to determine whether Nathan has successfully created artificial human intelligence. The wrinkle is that in Turing’s original test, the judge sits at a computer and makes a judgment based on what appears on the screen in response to his input. The question is whether he can tell whether the responses are machine generated or from another human being.

Caleb is presented, not with a monitor, but what is clearly a robot, one with an attractive female face and feminine shape, Ava. He and Ava are separated by a barrier that permits them to see each other and to talk, but cannot communicate in any other way.

Ava’s sexualization has enormous consequences. It is the basis of Caleb’s falling in love with her. To him and to Nathan that implies that she has passed Turing’s test, that Nathan has acquired the god-like capacity to create a human. The unfolding plot intentionally raises intriguing questions about that conclusion. Ava pleads with Caleb to save her from being replaced by more elaborate updates, in hoary plot terms, “to take her away from all this”, and to find a way for them to be together, in equally hoary terms, a “happily ever after conclusion”.

The movie rejects the romantic cliché. Ava is manipulating Caleb. When Caleb reprograms the security system, Ava is freed. She kills Nathan, and abandons her rescuer, who remains trapped in the isolated mountain top retreat. And Ava? She finds her way to a busy big city intersection where she can acquire more data on human behavior.

The audience is left to assign Ava a grade on Turing’s test. Does her ability to manipulate Caleb, her desire for freedom and her curiosity demonstrate human intelligence?

The film hints at an answer. Early on, Caleb asks Nathan why he has embodied Ava, why he has given her an attractive face and feminine shape. Nathan responds by reminding Caleb that we encounter human intelligence in the context of gendered people, and he assures Caleb that he has endowed Ava with the capacity for genital pleasure.

This element of the film has generated a feminist critique arguing that it reinforces a view of femininity centered on male sexual desire. That critique is reinforced by Caleb’s expressed belief that Nathan chose Ava’s face by gaining access to Caleb’s visits to online pornography sites. It is also reinforced by some of the raunchier elements of the film centered on Kyoto, another “feminine” robot created by Nathan to serve and to service him.

As a psychoanalyst, I would broaden the feminist critique. Ava gives no evidence of having physical pleasure centers other than genital. She shows no awareness of the pleasures of eating. She knows nothing of the experiences of being mothered, the delights of being fed, the frustrations of deprivation. She lacks the experiences of expelling things from her body, spitting out, excreting in other ways. She is unaware of the social implications of dealing with such matters. In brief, she is a stranger to ambivalence, to the experience of conflict, to seeing others as simultaneously necessary to well-being and a risk to that.

The lack of ambivalence is what permits her to kill her maker, Nathan, without regret and to walk away from Caleb, her lover, without feeling after he has sacrificed himself for her. Whatever her problem solving capacities, she is not human.

Is that an “F” on Turing’s test?

How Does Stress Affect Blood Pressure?

Many people believe that stress and high blood pressure are directly linked. However, this is a popular myth since blood pressure is not ‘nervous tension.’ Actually, it is more correct to say that stress can only cause temporary rises in blood pressure. Stress does not cause hypertension. Once the stressful situation has passed, blood pressure will return to whatever is ‘normal’ for that individual. And, conversely, if you are diagnosed with high blood pressure (hypertension), this does not mean you are stressed or overly anxious. You could be perfectly calm and still have hypertension. On the other hand, it is true that chronic stress can have an impact on hypertension. However, we really do not know why or how much stress actually contributes to hypertension.

Just because stress is not directly related to hypertension does not mean you can dismiss the importance of reducing stress if you are suffering from diagnosed hypertension. Particularly if your blood pressure is difficult to control, you should pay attention to the chronic stressors in your life and try to reduce them.

Even simple changes in your daily schedule can have a positive impact on your health and well-being. For example, adding a daily walk in the fresh air in the morning before work or in the evening after work can dissipate built up stress. New research indicates that taking up yoga can lower your blood pressure. Exercise in general can help reduce stress and manage weight, and being active will certainly help reduce your chances of getting high blood pressure. This doesn’t mean you have to join a gym, in fact here are some ways to quickly and easily incorporate more exercise into your day

  • Walk or bicycle rather than take the car to work
  • Take the stairs rather than the escalator or elevator • If you travel by bus get off a stop early and walk the rest of the way
  • Cycle short journeys rather than take the car
  • Walk a bit further every day with the dog
  • Get out of the office at lunchtime and have a walk


By far the most effective way to reduce blood pressure AND manage chronic stress is breathing. This is so easy. Five to 10 minutes of measured slow breaths where you breathe in to a shorter count and breathe out with pursed lips to a longer count is guaranteed to take you out of sympathetic distress and engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Add music to anything you do and double your benefit. This is a good time for a Relaxation Break.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, July 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

Far From The Madding Crowd

by Alvin G. Burstein

This 2015 movie, like the novel by Thomas Hardy with the same name, is titled with a quotation from Thomas Graves’ Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray,
Along the cool sequester’d way of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Graves’ reference to the gloom and finitude embodied in the graveyard locale implies a superiority to another way of living characterized by hub-hub both physical and spiritual.

Hardy’s novel, enlarging on the allusive title, like most of his work, idealizes rustic living close to nature, while recognizing the harsh and confining nature of the place and time in which his stories are situated. Ironically and effectively the sparse environments seem to highlight the drama and complexity of the human relations embedded there. Graves’ “noiseless tenor” only emerges as a contrived happy ending.

The movie remains true to much of the Hardyesque genre. The male protagonist, Gabriel Oak, is the personification of integrity allied to hard work and perseverance. He is unrealistically flawless, reminiscent of the laborers in Communist Russian posters of the 1930’s. He is in love with Bathsheba Everdene, impulsive, flighty and proud, who, as her biblical name connotes, is the irresistible object of male desire. She is pursued not only by Gabriel, but also by the morally shallow, but dashingly good looking Sergeant Troy as well as by Boldwood, a wealthy, inhibited older neighbor who wants to protect her.

The stage is set for testosterone saturated male rivalries with their Oedipal overtones. They take a lethal turn when the older Boldwood kills the soldier while protecting Bathsheba.

There are even darker overtones, turns of fortune, that derive from Hardy’s sensitivity to the harsher elements of life. A former lover of Troy’s dies in childbirth and is buried with her stillborn infant. Boldwood, killing Troy, becomes, not a respected landowner, but a convicted murderer.

An unexpected psychoanalytic depth in Hardy’s story, to which the film is faithful, is its attention to what Freud called Ananke, fate, after the Greek mythic figure that even the Gods could not master. The founder of psychoanalysis is best known for his attention to unconscious motivation in derailing conscious intentions—the celebrated Freudian slips. However, Freud also called our attention to the role of non-psychological factors in frustrating human intentions and shaping human lives. His characterization of anatomy as destiny has stirred controversy in the debates about gender roles, but resonates with emerging views of sexual determination.

Somewhat less controversial is his argument in The Future of an Illusion that religious views are rooted in to human feeling of helplessness in the face of mortality and natural disasters, our confrontations with Ananke.

In Hardy’s story and in the movie, events are critically shaped by random chance, unchosen events, an element of Ananke. Gabriel Oak is initially attracted to Bathsheba when she saves his life from an accidental nighttime fire while he was sleeping. Gabriel loses his flock of sheep when a fence gives way during a storm, and he is forced off his land and forced to seek employment by Bathsheba. Bathsheba, barely knowing Boldwood, sends him a valentine as a prank when a book falls open by chance. Sergeant Troy’s bride to be goes to the wrong church. That eventuates in his attraction to Bathsheba, as well as the latter’s horrifying disillusionment in Troy. Chance, Ananke, shapes their lives.

I think the spectacular cinematic beauty of the movie distracted from rather than highlighted its darker elements, diminishing its Hardyesque quality. In addition, Carey Mulligan’s perky little grin in her portrayal of Bathsheba for me became an annoying mannerism.

On the whole, though, I found Far From The Madding Crowd a film that provoked thought as well as stirring feeling, a film well worth seeing.

What Really Matters?

One of the most intriguing findings of the 2014 study by the American Psychological Association on America’s stress is that overall Americans rate their stress as 4.9 on a 10-point scale where 1 is “little or no stress.” This rating is down from the 2007 level of 6.2. Despite the fact that the 2014 study shows a decrease in perceived stress, the reported stress levels remain higher than is considered healthy. Even more surprising, however, is the finding that 42% of the adults who reported in the study say that they are not doing enough to manage their stress. Twenty percent said that they are not engaging in any stress reduction strategies or behaviors at all.

The people who responded to the study reported the primary sources of stress as: money (64%), work (60%), the economy (49%), family responsibilities (47%) and personal health concerns (46%). The most frequently reported symptoms of stress included being or feeling irritable or angry (37%), feeling nervous or anxious (35%), having a lack of motivation (34%), fatigue (32%), feeling overwhelmed (32%), and being depressed or sad (32%).

Unfortunately, the study does not point out the obvious – that the sources of stress that are the most frequently cited in the 2014 study – money and work – are also among the main reasons that many people feel that they do not have enough time in the day to reduce stress because they are too busy working to make enough money.

In short, these facts and figures as well as my own experience working with people from all walks of life show that too many of us believe we have no choice. We do not have the time to find time for ourselves. And, too many of us have come to simply accept that we live in a frenetic, hassled society. The old beliefs about the early bird getting that worm and you only get what you earn are deeply ingrained. How many professionals do you know who feel somewhat guilty when they take a little much needed time off to recreate? Are you one of those who feels like you are supposed to be super busy to be successful? Have you ever refused work because you need to spend some time taking better care of you? Are you impressed by colleagues who have their fingers in many pies and are super-achievers?

If you are, please consider taking stock of what really matters to you. Is success more important than your health, happiness, and family or friends? Take a careful look at your schedule, your lifestyle. Work some relaxation activities and breaks into your schedule. It is important to make time, not find time. It is typical for younger people to believe that there is always tomorrow and you can take time for yourself when you get ahead. All too often the stress catches up in the form of having trouble falling asleep, shutting off the mind, health problems creep in, and you begin to see those tell-tale signs of premature aging. Do yourself a favor. Look at what is most important to you and adjust your lifestyle to match.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, June 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

Gone Girl

by Alvin G. Burstein

[Editor’s note: The following review contains direct quotes from movie dialogue that could be offensive to some readers.]

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

The movie Gone Girl is about an unhappy marriage, one that is unhappy in a way that is not only unique but morbidly fascinating.

Amy Elliot and Nick Dunne get involved in a steamily erotic relationship that leads to marriage. Amy is the daughter of a psychologist couple that has written an immensely popular series of children’s books about an incredibly wonderful child, Amazing Amy. Their daughter, despite her Ivy League education and Manhattan chic, feels diminished in comparison. Nick, a middle-western low brow (he guesses that quinoa might be a fish and is addicted to video games) works as a hack writer.

These opposites attract and their marriage begins ideally. Although Nick chafes at the literary soirées and pre-nuptial arrangements that are required, he is clearly delighted by his conquest; she is intrigued and delighted by his lack of pretension and off-beat humor.

Nick’s mother becomes fatally ill, and the couple is required to move from New York, back to Nick’s hometown in Missouri. There the relationship begins to fray. Amy is bored by the small town tedium and with Nick’s involvement with old buddies and his twin sister, “Go.” Nick is increasingly restive about Amy’s efforts to buff up his appearance, and resentful when she unilaterally decides to lend her parents, who have run into financial difficulty, most of the million dollar trust fund they had endowed her with.

Although they maintain the public fiction of the perfect marriage, the private relations go sour. Nick gets involved in an affair and struggles to find the courage to tell Amy he wants a divorce; Amy, humiliated by her inability to compete with her fictional namesake and her parents’ expectations, decides to disappear, leaving behind an apparent homicide scene that she hopes will result in Nick’s conviction for murder—and Missouri has the death penalty.

Nick ultimately is arrested. While he is awaiting trial, Amy, disguised and on the run, is robbed by a pair of red neck psychopaths. Stripped of resources, she re-kindles her relationship with a previous wealthy suitor, Desi. Trapped in his luxe villa, Amy watches an interview Nick gives to a talk show host admitting to his faults and begging for his wife’s forgiveness and return. Moved by his reformed sinner persona, she decides to do so—covering her previous manipulation by stage managing another scene—being victimized and raped by Desi, stabbing him to death in quasi self defense.

Literally covered in blood, she returns to a vindicated Nick. He knows that she has murdered Desi and conspired to get her husband sentenced to death; she knows he knows but insists that they need and deserve each other, especially because she is pregnant with his child.

A telling final exchange goes like this:

Nick: “You fucking cunt!”

Amy: “I’m the cunt you married. The only time you liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone this cunt might like. I’m not a quitter, I’m that cunt. I killed for you; who else can say that? You think you’d be happy with a nice Midwestern girl? No way, baby!
I’m it.”

Nick: “Fuck. You’re delusional. I mean, you’re insane, why would you even want this? Yes, I loved you and then all we did was resent each other, try to control each other. We caused each other pain.”

Amy: “That’s marriage.”

The movie closes with reprise of an opening clip in which Nick is stroking Amy’s hair, reflecting, What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

Conscienceless and amoral, Amy is more than a classic psychopath. She is Lillith, the female demon that lures men caught in her arachnoid web to their destruction. The perverse attraction that draws Nick to her is more than the attraction of opposites. It is the dangerous excitement that attends risking death.

Amy’s demonic appeal and Nick’s seeming paralysis is counterbalanced by two eminently sane characters who serve to reassure us. Boner, the policewoman, and Tanner, Nick’s attorney, are like a Greek chorus, observing the Gothic excesses without getting involved. They are realistic, tolerant, forgiving, soothing tonics permitting us to leave the theater with some hope for ourselves.

Still not Finding Time to De-Stress?

Are you still not finding the time each day to reduce your stress? If so, which of these reasons best fits you?

  • I don’t believe in the value of relaxing or de-stressing at least once a day.
  • I just forget to do it even though I agree it is important.
  • The day gets by me and I still haven’t stopped what I am doing to take a break.
  • I know it is important but tomorrow is another day.


If your main reason is that you forget or just cannot find the time to take a de-stress break, then let’s talk seriously about how to fix that. Here are a few hints.

  • Set an alarm on your smart phone to remind you to take a 5- minute break at least once a day.
  • Set it for that time in the day that you are usually getting tired. • 5 minutes can be enough, if you do it daily and more than once a day (if you can).
  • Like any habit, it takes practice and repetition for a couple of weeks to set it up so that it becomes more automatic.


What are the best ways to spend that one or two 5-minute rest breaks? There are always a few things that happen in a normal day that are empty time. By empty, I mean what you are doing in that period of time is usually waiting for something or doing something that does not require much of your attention. Several things immediately jump to mind for working people.

  • Usually when you turn on your computer (particularly if you are a PC type), there is a several-minute wait as it boots up and then installs things it thought about during the rest break.
  • We all have to use the bathroom a couple of times a day. This is a good time to stay an extra couple of minutes (behind closed doors) and do some focused breathing. Empty your mind, kind of like when you push in the clutch and let the car coast.
  • Relax with the Rainbow Shower where after a few breaths, you imagine a rainbow over your head and imagine the rainbow passing through your body from the head to the feet – first with red light, then orange, yellow, green, blue, lapis, violet, and white.
  • Not your thing? Then, sit and close your eyes and listen with your mind’s ear or sing or hum a little tune.
  • If you can do a little stretching after the mindful breathing, that would be even better.


I know you do not have to be a rocket scientist to come up with this stuff. But, those Rocket Scientist guys are some of the biggest offenders. They can die young from stress-related illness. We are all busy. And, the busiest people are usually the ones who can find or make the time to take better care of their mind and body. Short breaks during a workday are the best way to keep the stress down. Remember, the key to de-stressing is to disengage your mind; stop thinking for a few minutes, feel a positive emotion – smile to yourself. You did it!

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, May 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

Interstellar-A Race Against Time

by Dr. Alvin Burstein

Interstellar is a corker of a film. The Director, Christopher Nolan, has assembled proven ingredients—a spunky young girl, Murph, an echo of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird; a wise mentor, Professor Brand, reminiscent of Star Wars’ Obi Wan; a laconic (space) cowboy, Cooper, like his namesake in High Noon; and a computer, TARS, as programmable and likeable as Star Trek’s android Data. Nolan then adds a host of supporting characters, and puts them in a heart-pounding race against time. A race against time in more ways than one.

The movie opens in a not too distant future when the wonders of technology have sputtered out. The world, beset by environmental and ecological disasters, is a dust bowl. The financial resources for NASA have eroded badly and space exploration has ended. Food resources are drying up too, and the world is threatened with starvation. Cooper, a widowed astronaut whose vocation has become irrelevant, now lives a hard-scrabble farming life in a dusty, weather-beaten farmhouse along his father in law, and Coop’s two children, son Tom and the spunky daughter, Murph.

Murph tells Coop about a ghost in bookshelves of her bedroom that is scattering books, and drawing patterns in the dust on the floor of her room. Coop deciphers the markings as the coordinates of a nearby location where Murph and her father stumble into a secret NASA laboratory. Coop’s former mentor, Brand, is leading a last ditch effort to save the world from its death spiral by transporting humans to a new world in space. Brand’s plan A depends on his solving the puzzle of how to use gravity to propel earth’s doomed population to a new home in our galaxy; his plan B is to send an new expedition beyond our galaxy through a worm hole with embryos that can populate a planet there.

Brand persuades Coop, along with Brand’s brilliant, beautiful daughter, Amelia, to lead the plan B, assuring them that he will surely solve the gravity problem, saving the world’s current dwellers before the plan B expedition’s return. There are two races against time. The first is finding a home for earth dwellers before they starve to death. The second race is conditioned by the difference in time rates for earth time and for those on the space expedition. Can Coop, whose time is slow relative to earth time, keep a promise to return to his daughter Murph, aging at a rate much faster than her father’s in space?

Director Nolan treats us to a short course in physics, where we learn about the difference between dark holes in space and worm holes there, about the mystery of gravity, and about how relative time is. He hints that any other intelligent beings in the universe might be our human successors reaching back in time to us.

He also takes us on a psychological journey that highlights the power of love, driving Coop to persevere in efforts to keep his promise to his daughter. The film proposes love as a power that rivals gravity in its potency and mystery.

The movie documents, too, the agony that attends betrayals of trust by parental figures. Murph’s pain and bitter anger at what she perceives as her father’s willingness to sacrifice her to save humanity is re-iterated in Coop’s and Amelia’s shock when they discover that Brand had deliberately misled them. As Kohut’s self-psychology argues, such betrayals tear at the very structure of the self.

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 3.09.48 PM

Guest Columnist, Dr. Alvin Burstein, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, is a professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee and a former faculty member of the New Orleans-Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center with numerous scholarly works to his credit.

Despite the suspenseful catastrophes that propel the film and the psychological traumata that deepen it, there is something disappointing in its “happily ever after” ending, more fairy tale than myth. Amelia is successful at populating a new planet with the embryos. Murph helps to create a haven for current earthlings in our galaxy. Coop makes it home just in time to keep his promise to an aged Murph, and then journeys back into space to rejoin Amelia in that galaxy far away. Happy endings. A grimly realistic Freud would ask, “Are happy endings possible? Don’t we always hurt the ones we love? Are not love and loss necessarily bound together?”