Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Story of What Wasn't

Earlier tonight, Brendan Weiskotten sent me a link on the neuroscience of storytelling. Or rather, the neuroscience of story-listening. In the video he sent me, some scientists talk about how people’s hormones and brains reacted to a story about a man whose son was dying of cancer. Unsurprisingly, they found that the story activated parts of the brain related to theory of mind and empathy. Not only that, but people who had a stronger reaction (measured by levels of cortisol and oxytocin in the blood) were more likely to give money to a stranger or charity afterwards.

I found this video both fascinating and a bit troubling. My hyperrational side is perturbed by the trend I see sometimes in charity solicitations and the media, where the person who can present the most sentimental story wins all. I really don’t like to be pulled by my heartstrings when I’m working, because I don’t want the person with no story (or rather, who chooses not to share their story—everyone has a story) to get overlooked.

Recently, though, I’d been trying to work on my application essays for internships. Again and again they were coming out totally flat. Anyone reading them would doubt whether I really wanted to be a child neuropsychologist. I was starting to doubt whether I really wanted to be a child neuropsychologist. Honestly, I was starting to doubt whether I really wanted anything.

For the last month, I’d been training to do neuropsychological assessment, which is loads of fun. It’s actually a lot like learning the rules for a complex game— If they’re under age 9, start with question 1. Otherwise, start with question 7. Stop when they get three wrong out of five in a single set. If they miss the first question, go back to the easier ones until they get two right. I’m generally considered to be pretty good at it (I credit gaming) and I really enjoy it. But we’d been testing each other for practice, not clients. It was fun and intellectually satisfying, but it didn’t feel real. It didn’t feel like it mattered.

And then, I was assigned to conduct my first classroom observation. It was at my old school, which added to the poignancy; during gym the kids still sit in “squad order” and hold up “code zero” (zero talking), just like I did more than fifteen years ago. I watched the kids for an hour and a half, and BAM. I remembered why the hell I’m in graduate school. I went home that evening and my internship essay wrote itself.

It wasn’t just seeing the kids that stirred me up, that reminded me how much I cared. Sure, they were cute and fun. Kids are pretty much always entertaining to work with. But what got me was that eventually they won’t be kids anymore. The day I was observing them, and all the days after that, will have become the kids’ stories.

I thought about my friends who had already been having trouble by elementary school. One had become quite successful through willpower, ingenuity, and luck. He talks about his difficult childhood as a party story, spinning it for maximum entertainment. But when he is alone with someone he trusted, the same story is one of loneliness and fear. He’s one of the lucky ones—others have given up hope that they’ll ever attain the good end. Looking at the kids, especially the troubled ones, I realized that they’re still at the very beginning of their stories. There’s still plenty of time to rewrite.

You wouldn’t think neuropsychological testing is a place you’d find much emotion. We don’t talk about feelings, we talk about “Spell ‘pencil” and “Push the button whenever you see a black square” and “Draw me a house.”

But, just like Brendan’s video demonstrates, the power is in the stories. The stories of what happens to so many kids who don’t get help. Of what could happen to this kid. As I prepare to do my first round of testing, I imagine a different story: in this one, we figure out what the problem is, and the interventions are put in place. My client grows up to be happy, successful, and completely unaware of what could have been.

Not terribly dramatic, but that suits me just fine. The world is already full of sad stories and I can imagine more any time I want. By becoming a child psychologist, I have the chance to keep a few of those stories safely in my imagination and out of the world.