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On Mozart

“Monday Musings” for December 6, 2015

Volume V. No. 50/258

Wolfgang20Amadeus20Mozart20PNG

Mortal Anniversary of Mozart: The Mystery of Mozart’s Genius

By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

 

Saturday marked the mortal anniversary of Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the most enigmatic individuals of the 18th century. He was born on January 27, 1756. Before his death on December 5, 1791, he was in poor health. Throughout his short life, he had smallpox, tonsillitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, typhoid fever, rheumatism, gum disease, and possible cirrhosis of the liver and hepatitis all caused by excessive use of alcohol and possible sexual indiscretions. Toward the end of his life, he had poor hygiene, most likely because of poverty, and had to move a smaller apartment with limited accommodations and facilities.

Mozart was enigmatic because of ineptness, inelegant personal conduct, and his lack of social grace. Yet in his operas, he demonstrates deep understanding of human nature. He takes us through a most complex circuitous labyrinth of psychological wonders that is humanly impossible. As I listen to his operas over and over again, I keep asking myself how did he know so much? For example, his opera King of Crete, Idomeneo, set in 1200 BC, is an incredible psychological study of human possibilities, frailties, feelings and complex psychodynamics of behavior. Medical literature do refer to Mozart’s scatologia/lalia and coprophilia as symptoms of Tourette Syndrome, a neurologic disorder the victims of which experience uncontrollable urge to make foul noises and use curse words. Modern medicine has pinpointed the biochemical etiology of the disease, namely excess dopamine concentration in the basal ganglia of the brain. This condition is neuroendocrinologically the opposite of Parkinson’s disease where there is a paucity of Dopamine in the basal ganglia.

Dispensing with superlatives and avoiding the use of adjectival palates of hero-worshiping, nonetheless, an observer is made to confess that Mozart was undoubtedly a genius. Shakespeare, Goethe, Ferdowsi, Avicenna, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), there are only a handful of them…Classical music, especially Mozart’s music, like classical books, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Dante’s Oeuvre, have a theme, are written in noble language and are lasting across generations. All of Mozart’s 626 pieces are abundantly endowed with these basic qualities. They have a theme, they are written in noble and elegant musical notes and are transgenerational.

In his short life of 35 years, Mozart composed a known body of work, 626 pieces, of lasting elegance and complex musical intricacies, some of which are miraculous. Let’s take the summer 1788. How could anyone compose symphonies and operas in a hot summer, combating illness and mourning the death of his mother, in six short weeks, composing four master pieces of unequal elegance and sublimity? And, yet in the depth of despair and depression, he composed the glorious Jupiter Symphony in C Major K 551. It is beyond mortals. It took more than six weeks to sit down eight hours a day to just copy the music of the fabulous compositions in that hot summer of 1778 when Mozart’s was mourning the death of his mother, and processing his father’s lament and accusation that Mozart killed his mother, because of his ill behavior and leaving the nest. Reading Maynard Solomon’s biography of Mozart with focus on summer of 1778 leads one to believe in Mozart as a miracle…

There are literally billions of words written about Mozart, his life and music. In addition to Solomon’s book, I have found another respected musicologist and dramaturge, Joseph T. Kerman, Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of California, Berkeley, whose credible analysis of Mozart’s music is most enlightening. Kerman, too, has much to say about Mozart’s summer of 1788 and his final composition, Mozart’s Requiem K 626.

Readers of this space recall an essay on special children of God, we listed Mozart as follows: “Not four score and seven years before Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, but about ten thousand years ago, the age of Neolithic man, God set out to send man on the road to perfection. He sent the ancient Persian prophet, Zaratustra (Zoroaster), as early as 500 BC, to bring us the concept of good and evil which in modern day philosophy is known as epistemological dualism. The Sumerians brought us literacy and language.

The Egyptians taught us social order and government; the Persians, participatory democracy; the Greeks, city-state and citizen representation; the Babylonians gave us devotion and discipline; and Jesus came bringing us civility, hope andlove.1215 years later, the Anglo-Saxons brought us the Magna Carta. And in 1756 we were given Mozart through whom music flowed like water running through the fountains of Tivoli.”

Yes, in my view, Mozart, a flawed human was basically a divine prophet. With unparalleled beauty and sublimity, he was ordained to fulfill what Bach started with Clavier Book I and Book II. We also recall in the essay in this space on Thomas Jefferson and his fondness for music, how he arranged to meet Mozart. Jefferson had planned to ask Mozart to compose a piece in memory of Jefferson’s late beloved wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, very much like Bach’s commissioned pieces by the Goldberg familyThe Goldberg Variations. However, Jefferson was turned off by Mozart because of his “ineptness and lack of grace… The gentleman is socially uncouth and frivolous…” Jefferson said. Yet, Jefferson loved Mozart’s “heavenly music” and travelled long distances to listen to professional performances of Mozart’s music.

Yes, Mozart belongs to the circle of Gods in the distant cosmos of tomorrows…We are thankful for having Mozart, and today, with acute awareness of the gift of Mozart, we mourn his death, but enjoy celebrating his music.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012).

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On Spinoza

“Monday Musings” for Monday November 30, 2015

Volume V. No 49/257

baruch-spinoza

Bernard Baruch Spinoza, The Rebellious Philosopher

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DSc (Hon), DLFAPA*

Bernard Baruch Spinoza had a vast mind the size of the Central Park and the Hyde Park put together. I have always thought in my imagination how nice it would be to have permission to just amble around Spinoza’s vast mind. As we prepare for this leisurely sojourn, it is a good idea to know a little bit about the man:  He was born on November 24, 1632 in Amsterdam. His parents and grandparents were Portuguese Jews who, because of intolerance and anti-Semitism, emigrated to Amsterdam and converted into Christianity. By the way, this was a common thing in those days. We know of a French Jewish teenager, at the age of 14 emigrated to France, converted into Catholicism and worked his way up to become Court Composer for the Sun King, Louis XIV. Jean Batiste Lully was the czar of music in all of Europe in the 17th century. His majestic overture with dotted rhythm is instantly recognizable after 350 years. Christian Bach, one of J. S. Bach’s 22 children, went to Milan converted into Catholicism to get a job at the Milan Cathedral. Lorenzo De Ponte a Jewish Italian boy by the name of Conegliano family converted into Catholicism and became a priest. He was later defrocked because of un-cloth like behavior with the ladies of his parish. We know him as the librettist for Mozart’s famous three buffo Operas, Don Giovanni, Marriage of Figaro, and Cosi Fan Tuti.

These immigrants who chose to be citizens and were not born citizens make impressive contributions to their adopted lands. An aside, the issue of immigration and education for immigrants reminds us that 83% of Nobel Prize winners since its inception in 1901 have been immigrants who chose to be Americans and were not born Americans. We must nurture and encourage intellect and learning wherever there is potential regardless of nationality, geography and ethnic origin. Back to Spinoza. He learned Hebrew, paleo- Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and to some degree Arabic. He was a polyglot and polymath. Spinoza became known in the Jewish community for positions contrary to prevailing Jewish belief of the period, wherein he harbored critical positions towards the anti-Maimonidean.

The philosophy of Baruch Spinoza is a systematic, logical, rational philosophy developed by him in the seventeenth century in Europe. It’s a system of ideas built from basic building blocks with an internal consistency with which Spinoza tried to answer life’s major questions and in which he proposed that “God exists only philosophically.” He was heavily influenced by thinkers such as Descartes, Euclid and Thomas Hobbes as well as theologians in the Jewish philosophical tradition such as Maimonides, but his work was in many respects a departure from the Judeo-Christian tradition. He was influenced by Muslims. We will see that as we tour the vast expanse of his mind. Spinoza was a restless man. He considered it hypocritical to follow the writings and teaching of Maimonides and other Jewish religious text. On 27 July 1656, the Jewish community issued to him the writ of Cherem, a kind of excommunication. Righteous indignation on the part of the synagogue elders of Spinoza’s heresies was not the sole cause for his excommunication; there was also the practical concern that his ideas, which disagreed equally well with the orthodoxies of other religions as with Judaism, would not sit well with the Christian leaders of Amsterdam and would reflect badly on the whole Jewish community, endangering the limited freedoms that the Jews had achieved in that city. The terms of his Cherem were severe. He was, in Bertrand Russell’s words, “cursed with all the curses in Deuteronomy and with the curse that Elisha pronounced on the children who, in consequence, were torn to pieces by the she-bears.” The Cherem was, atypically, never revoked. Following his excommunication, he adopted the first name Benedictus, the Latin equivalent of his given name, Baruch; they both mean “blessed”. In his native Amsterdam he was also known as Bento (Portuguese for Benedict or blessed) de Spinoza, which was the informal form of his name. The ban, written in Portuguese, is still preserved in the archives of the Amsterdam community. The pronouncement preceding the ban reads:

The chiefs of the council make known to you that having long known of evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, they have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from evil ways. Not being able to find any remedy, but on the contrary receiving every day more information about the abominable heresies practiced and taught by him, and about the monstrous acts committed by him, having this from many trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness on all this in the presence of said Spinoza, who has been convicted; all this having been examined in the presence of the Rabbis, the council decided, with the advice of the Rabbi, that the said Spinoza should be excommunicated and cut off from the Nation of Israel.

There is a tremendous historical parallel between Spinoza and Martin Luther (coincidentally, today in 1521 Martin Luther was tried Diet of Worms). They both started to study the Law, Baruch in Amsterdam, Luther in Wittenberg, they were both rebellious and contemptuous of orthodoxy, they were both ex-communicated form the mainstay religious institutions, Spinoza from Synagogue and Luther from Catholic Church. This is topic for another lecture…

After his Cherem, Spinoza became acquainted with several Collegiants, members of an eclectic sect with tendencies toward rationalism. He began reading and studying Rene Descartes who was 46 years his elder. Many of his friends belonged to dissident Christian groups which met regularly as discussion groups and which typically rejected the authority of established churches as well as traditional dogmas. Textbooks and encyclopedias often depict Spinoza as a solitary soul who eked out a living as a lens grinder. In reality, he had many friends but kept his needs to a minimum. One reviewer noted “No one has ever come nearer to the ideal life of the philosopher than Spinoza.” Another wrote: “As a teacher of reality, he practiced his own wisdom, and was surely one of the most exemplary human beings ever to have lived… In outward appearance he was unpretending, but not careless. His way of living was exceedingly modest and retired; often he did not leave his room for many days together. He was almost incredibly frugal; his expenses sometimes amounted only to a few pence a day.” He appears to have had no sexual life. Spinoza also corresponded with Peter Serrarius, a radical Protestant and millennarian merchant. Serrarius is believed to have been a patron of Spinoza at some point. By the beginning of the 1660s, Spinoza’s name became more widely known, and eventually Gottfried Leibniz and Henry Oldenburg paid him visits, as stated in Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic. Spinoza corresponded with Oldenburg for the rest of his short life.

Descartes has been described as “Spinoza’s starting point.” Spinoza’s first publication was his geometric exposition (formal math proofs) of Descartes, Parts I and II of Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy (1663). Spinoza has been associated with Leibniz and Descartes as “rationalists” in contrast to “empiricists”. From December 1664 to June 1665, Spinoza engaged in correspondence with Blyenbergh, an amateur Calvinist theologian, who questioned Spinoza on the definition of evil. Later in 1665, Spinoza notified Oldenburg that he had started to work on a new book, the Theologico-Political Treatise, published in 1670. Leibniz disagreed harshly with Spinoza in Leibniz’s own published Refutation of Spinoza, but he is also known to have met with Spinoza on at least one occasion, as mentioned above, and his own work bears some striking resemblances to specific important parts of Spinoza’s philosophy, known as Monadology.

When public reactions to the anonymously published Theologico-Political Treatise were extremely unfavourable to his brand of Cartesianism, Spinoza was compelled to abstain from publishing more of his works. Wary and independent, he wore a signet ring engraved with his initials, a rose, and the word “caute” (Latin for “cautiously”). The Ethics and all other works, apart from the Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy and the Theologico-Political Treatise, were published after his death, in the Opera Posthuma edited by his friends in secrecy to avoid confiscation and destruction of manuscripts. The Ethics contains many still-unresolved obscurities and is written with a forbidding mathematical structure modeled on Euclid’s geometry and has been described as a “superbly cryptic masterwork.”  Spinoza eventually reconciled with the teachings of Moses Maimonedes and even wrote pieces in which he agreed with Maimonedes Oath and assertions about “self-discovery”. We will get to it if time allows.

Going back to the vast mental space of Spinoza, we see that he is talking fondly of his putative association with a group of very close friends spanning over 1300. It is like holding frequent séances where he talks in person with these friends. The first is Saint Augustine of Hippo, born 354, died 430, author of more than six million words. Spinoza is very high on St Augustine. He calls St Augustine the most brilliant “doubter” of all. “The boy stole apples, lied to his parents, stole from his parents and sold stuff to support his gambling habits while still in elementary school, yet after his conversion at age 32, he began to shape up and became a superb specimen of human being. Many scholars think that his short 1660 essay, Korte Verhandeling van God, de Mensch en Deszelvs Welstand  (Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being) was the heavy influence of St Augustine, especially his last three books of the 13 books of Confessions, Memory, Time and Intellect.

 

Later in life, he made a u-turn and we can hear him talk about our physician colleague, Moses Maimonides of Cordoba. The man was a doctor, a Rabbi, a philosopher, a writer, a clinician, and a counselor to the Caliphs, a Jewish Boy who was special physician to the Muslim Caliphs. He re-read the Torah, Commentary on the Mishna (Hebrew Pirush Hamishnayot), written in Judeo-Arabic, Sefer Hamitzvot (trans.The Book of Commandments), Sefer Ha’shamad (Letter of Martydom), Mishneh Torah, also known as Sefer Yad ha-Chazaka, a comprehensive code of Jewish law and Guide for the Perplexed, a philosophical work harmonizing and differentiating Aristotle’s philosophy and Jewish theology, all written in Judeo-Arabic, though he had read them all as a child. As the result of this re-read, Baruch’s three famous and essential treatises were born:

  • Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione(On the Improvement of the Understanding). Project Gutenberg
  • 1663. Principia philosophiae cartesianae (Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, translated by Samuel Shirley, with an Introduction and Notes by Steven Barbone and Lee Rice, Indianapolis, 1998). Gallica. In Latin ONLY.
  • 1670. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (A Theologico-Political Treatise). Project Gutenberg: Part 1;Part 2;Part 3;Part 4; Pdf Version
  • 1675/76 Tractatus Politicus (Unfinished) Pdf Version

These carry the heavy hand of Moses Maimonides. Spinoza goes on to talk about his other trans-century buddies, one of whom is St Thomas Aquinas. Spinoza is so impressed by Aquinas because he translated all of Aristotle from Greek to Latin. It is believed that the beginning or anlagen of Spinoza’s work in ethics and dualism and his intellectual love affair with Euclid and Descartes starts with his reading Aquinus work and learning how to think and how to argue from that friend and master. The only book that bears Spinoza’s name on the spine is the fruit of that love affair, published in 1677, Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata (The Ethics,  translation by Jonathan Bennett.

The first translation of this work into Hebrew was done by Samuel ibn Tibbon Teshuvot, of collected correspondence and response, including a number of public letters on resurrection and the afterlife, on conversion to other faiths, and Iggereth Teiman – addressed to the oppressed Jewry of Yemen. Treatise on Logic (Arabic: Maqala Fi-Sinat Al-Mantiq) has been printed 17 times, including editions in Latin(1527), German (1805, 1822, 1833, 1828), French (1935), and English (1938), and in an abridged Hebrew form.

Just like Hyde Park, where people convene and converse, we see  a group of students gathered around Spinoza asking him about pre-Socratic philosophers, and he goes back to Thales Miltus of 624 BC. Spinoza is high on Thales and thinks Thales hung the moon. He invented scientific method inductive and deductive reasoning. Much of his reference to Thales is incorporated in Spinoza’s Treatise of God, Man and his Well-being. He also speaks highly of and examines the convention of four elements of fire, air, earth and water. He is equally enthusiastic about the contribution of other pre-Socratic philosophers, Pythagoras, Ephesian, Eleatic and Atomist Schools. When we ask him his favourite philosopher, he shakes his head and with reverence and awe admits that the God-like philosopher in his book is Zaratustra or Zoroaster, the father of dualism Good and Evil.  He then mentions Renee Descartes (1596) a major figure in rationalism, helped him and Gottfried Leibniz, to oppose the empiricists Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Hume. You can hear Spinoza saying “Leibniz, Descartes and I well versed in mathematics as well as philosophy could counter those superficial naturalists.” In an uncharacteristic mood of put down, Spinoza walking away parapathetically saying “why, John Locke studied medicine but did not even manage to get his MD degree and cannot practice medicine. What good does it do to go to school, learn all that anatomy and physiology dissect all those corpses yet never lay a hand on a patient. Look at how well the other boys, friends of John Locke, people like Huntington are doing….   did not even Descartes and Leibniz contribute greatly to science as well?” As the inventor of the Cartesian coordinate system, Descartes founded analytic geometry, the bridge between algebra and geometry, crucial to the discovery of infinitesimal calculus and analysis. He is best known for the philosophical statement “Cogito ergo sum” (French: Je pense, donc je suis; English: I think, therefore I am; or I am thinking, therefore I exist), found in part IV of Discourse on the Method (1637 – written in French but with inclusion of “Cogito ergo sum”) and §7 of part I of Principles of Philosophy (1644 – written in Latin).

Authors who have tried to situate Spinoza vis-à-vis psychoanalysis have pondered several different kinds of questions. W. Aron (1977) asked about the overall influence of Spinoza on Freud’s thought. C. Rathbun (1934) noted that the libido, a fundamental concept of psychoanalysis, is adumbrated in Spinoza’s concept of conatus, an inborn drive that leads to striving and persisting. On Walter Bernard’s reading (1946), it is perhaps closer to eros or desire. But what, according to these authors, were Spinoza’s therapeutic principles? These works today appear dated, indicative as much of the intellectual state of psychoanalysis, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries, as of a poorly informed reading of Spinoza. Some authors, such as Abraham Kaplan (1977) recall that Spinoza’s philosophy was not a proto-psychoanalytic science, but a very knowledgeable metaphysics. Francis Pasche (1981) discusses the idea of “practical psychoanalysis.” Gilles Deleuze’s work on Spinoza, Expression in Philosophy (1992), has opened the way toward a confrontation between Spinozistic and psychoanalytic ethics. Finally, several psychoanalytic authors (Bertrand, 1984; Ogilvie, 1993; Burbage and Chouchan, 1993) have discovered unconscious implications in Spinoza’s philosophy.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012).

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On Pope Francis

“Monday Musings” for Monday July 6, 2015

Volume V. No. 27/235

PopeFrancis

Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change: An Analysis

 By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA, ScD (Hon)*

 

In his most recent encyclical, Pope Francis is urging the world to act on climate change. A few reflections:

I have been reading Papal encyclical since I was a small boy. I used to get such a big thrill to get my copy of Pope Pius XII Encyclicals and his Urbi et Orbi on Christmas and Easter. Going to a French Jesuit school in Tehran accentuated my love for the Papal pronouncements, even though I must admit that half of the time I did not quite understand what I was reading. Nonetheless, I have continued to read with fascination and try to understand what the Popes, these men of power ensconced in seats of empyrean try to tell their flock, and for that matter to the world. Of the six succeeding Popes since Pius XII, and they are Saint John Paul XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis, I have found The current Pope Francis to be most clear in identifying and focusing the human issues, such as poverty, income inequality and gender. I often compare the Popes and their writings to the Chairs of the American Federal Reserve System.  Some are as confusing and tortuously unintelligible as the utterances of the former Chairman Alan Greenspan, and some are as clear and lucid as Paul Volcker… and some like Bernanke, somewhere in the middle. Pope Francis is an exception. His language is simple; his pronouncements, credible and his rhetoric imbued with passion and commitment. By the way, I have not made up my mind about Janet Yellen! Pope Francis speaks in intelligible and easy to understand language. In his exchanges with the heads of states including Presidents Obama of US and Putin of Russia, his primary expressed concerns are peace, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio born December 17, 1936 in Buenos Aires, Argentina was elected Pope in early 2013 and took the name Pope Francis after Saint Francis of Assisi. In fewer than ten months he managed to place himself in the center stage of the world. As one Journalist put it “He placed himself at the very center of the central conversations of our time: about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalization, the role of women, the nature of marriage, and the temptation of power…:”

I like Pope Francis. To me, his admirable humanity asymptotically approaches Godliness. I look forward to reading his future encyclicals and seasonal Urbi et Orbis and anything else he has to say or write.

The Pope’s latest encyclical deals with the issue of climate control. The encyclical is a book length treatise consisting of six chapters, and a footnote of some 75 references. In one chapter, the stunning title “Ecological Education and Spirituality” the Pope examines our individual responsibility and the moral imperative of caring for our home, the earth. This is the first time, ever, I have seen the word “ecology” uttered by a Pope.

In this work, Laudato Si’ (praise be to you, my Lord) Pope Francis does not take sides on the controversy of climate change. He does not assert the correctness of “science” vs. “non-science” approach or assertion about climate change. He merely examines the issues and makes recommendations for being a more concerned and aware citizen of the world. To keep our home, the earth, clean and tidy. Care for the health of our common home, our earth, just like a father teaching his children the virtues of cleanliness. In his May 24, 2015 encyclical, Pope Francis states that “We can see God reflected in all that exists. Our hearts are moved to praise the Lord for all his creatures and worship him in union with them.” The Pope is not only a church father, a theologian, but a philosopher. This is a rare combination. In 2000 years history of the church we have had fewer than what you can count on one hand, people who qualified for the empyrean seat of “philosopher and Saint”. They are Saint Anthony (born early first Century; died middle of first century), Saint Augustine of Hippo (Nov 13, 354-August 28, 430 AD), Saint Ambrose (340-April 4, 397 AD), and Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225- March 7, 1274). Maybe you can add Pope Gregory (540-March 12, 604) to the list. I taste the delicious flavor of that rare combination—philosopher and saint–in the makings of Pope Francis. It is exciting!

In assessing Pope Francis’ spiritual place in the world, frankly, our Pope fits in the Sufi Khaneghah, as a Kalender, as a Jew in a synagogue, as a Buddhist in a Temple, as a Hindu reading and preaching Bhagavad Gita, and as a global evangelist re-inserting God in the lives of seven billion (soon to be eight billion) inhabitants of the earth. I am personally impressed that the Pope is evangelical and not evangelistic. In the true sense of the word, Pope Francis is a catholic (with small ‘c’)—a man of universe, a citizen of the world, a faithful and comfortable child of God who while exuding joy, conducts a consequential life.

Critic of his holiness’ Encyclical:

In Pope Francis’ May 24, 2015, “Laudato Si’, urging the world to act on climate change, what I find missing is a lack of emphasis on prevention. I fully agree that we should feed the hungry, clothes the naked and shelter the homeless. Those are the primary responsibilities of every child of God. However, in his encyclical, the Pope does not address the issues of how to prevent hunger, nakedness and homelessness. Very few suggestions, if any, are made on the Church’s directions and responsibilities for prevention, family planning, and birth control. No mention of investing in education to prevent generating irresponsible sex machines who reproduce, bring children to the world and abandon them.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association; Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association; and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012).

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On Magna Carta

“Monday Musings” for Monday June 15, 2015

Volume V, No. 24/232

magna carta

Happy Birthday, Magna Carta !

By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA, ScD (Hon)*

 

Today is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, Latin for “Great Charter.” Next time you are in London, go by the British Library, near Euston Station, climb the stairs. On the left you enter a pavilion full of old books, ancient manuscripts, including a Guttenberg Bible, etc. On the right, you will find a good size room set aside to display the magnificent British document, the Magna Carta, signed by King John of Lackland dated December 28, 1215. The document was actually written in Runnymede on June 15, 1215.

The room exhibiting Magna Carta is wired with the latest technology to give the viewers all they want to know about Magna Carta. But I have found the display, describing King Lackland’s Magna Carta, much lacking (pun intended), especially in the intellectual and political history of the precious document. What is presented in the British Library is very useful, but short on depth and epistemic understanding of events leading to the birth of the document. Here are some reflections and a brief critical analysis:

Faithful readers of this space recall the essay on Queen Matilda Maude of England (February 7, 1102- to September 10, 1167), who laid the cornerstone of Anglo-Saxon freedom and the governance of the rule of Law. Matilda was like our 20th century Susan B. Anthony (February 15, 1820 to March 13, 1906), who championed women suffrage by laying the work for the 19th amendment which was signed in 1919 by President Wilson. What a feat, 92 years of freedom and voting right for the American women. Going back to Matilda Maude and her important work to sow the seeds of Magna Carta in Britain’s mental space: Matilda and her younger brother were the only two legitimate children of King Henry I who had altogether sired 23 children. She reigned for a  brief period of time and was never crowned, thus not listed in the British monarchic line of succession. Instead, her male cousin Stephens of Blois was the monarch 1135-1154 and is listed in the history books. Omitting the work and contribution of Matilda Maude form history of Magna Carta is a major historic and intellectual oversight.

Another significant omission is the impact of assassination of Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on December 29, 1170. As one notices, he was assassinated one day short of 45 years before the signing of Magna Carta. Archbishop Becket was assassinated by four knights from the court of King of England Henry II. They were dispatched to “rid England from a bothersome and intruding priest”. With the brutal killing of Beckett, the public became sensitized to the atrocities of Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their three sons (very much like Libya’s Gaddafi and his sons) and a ground swell of revolt against kingship began to slowly brew over the next 45 years.  Indeed the excesses of Kings of England over a century brought on the emergence of Magna Carta, the principle message of which was to severely restrict the powers of the throne.

King John Lackland who signed Magna Carta was not a benevolent and humanitarian king like King Cyrus the Great of Persia and Hammurabi of Babylon and other famous altruists of yore. The 12 years old battle of Bouvines definitely restored French power under King Phillip II Augustus bringing the Angevin-Flanders conflict to an end.  But the battle of Bouvines in 1214, enfeebled King John considerably. By 1214, King John was a worn out fellow bereft of energy and friends. The British Lords and aristocracy viewed him as a usurper of land with hedonistic tendencies similar to those Henry III. They detected King John’s weakness and vulnerability by moving rapidly and writing a document consisting of 61 clauses, they named it Magna Carta. It restricted the liberties of the king and moved England toward a constitutional monarchy. Magna Carta is essentially an unimpressive document mostly dealing with laws of commerce and cannons of trade. It does not hold a candle to US Constitution, our Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence But some of its clauses are brilliant examples of human rights advocacy. Consider Article 39. It states “No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned or deprived of his freehold or outlawed or banished or in any way ruined, nor will we take or order action against him, except by the lawful judgment of his equals and according to the law of the land.” Doesn’t it sound like something written by John Locke or Thomas Jefferson?   In America, we are blessed to have the intellectual depth, wisdom, and knowledge of 2500 years history by a group of devoted patriots, America’s founding fathers who gave us our Republic. They skillfully wove concepts from Declaration of Human Rights by Persia’s King Cyrus the Great, dubbed Messiah in the Bible (Isaiah 41), Code of Hammurabi, and the renaissance philosophers, especially Pico Della Mirandola’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man” in the tapestry of our beloved nation.

Personally, I love America. Unlike many of my misguided colleagues who are ashamed of America, I am proud of America. I love the cacophony and gridlock in US Congress with 8% approval rating. I love the liberty and freedom to disagree, argue, and have robust and serious conversation without fear of being arrested and jailed. I love America’s devotion and commitment to supremacy of the rule of law and not those of a ruler, a Shah, an Ayatollah or a some two-bit dictator-President-for-Life.  And I am happy to pay my taxes to ensure the survival of our freedom, but not happy to see my taxes wasted, and moneys misspent on programs that encourage delinquent and antisocial behavior. Behavior like irresponsibly fathering many children by many women, and not being a daddy to them. Behavior like setting one’s highest ambition in life to get on public welfare. Behavior like coming to America, living here for many years, enjoying the fruits of the liberty, freedom and equality America offers, yet not learning the English language, and not assuming any civic pride and patriotic responsibility….

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association; Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association; and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012).

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On Commencement

“Monday Musings” for Monday May 4, 2015

Volume V. No. 18/226

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Commencement Address

William Peace University

Sunday May 2, 2015

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

 

(Editor’s Note: Below is the Commencement address the writer delivered to the 2015 graduating class of William Peace University, Raleigh, NC)

Mr. Chairman, members of the Board of Trustees, Madam President, honored guests, members of the faculty, fellow students, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I take the podium’s prerogative to ask for a moment of silence honoring the memory of my good friend, the late Trent Ragland, Jr., a former trustee of this beloved institution….  Thank you

So, you graduated from college. Congratulations! You have been through a lot of graduations. You graduated from pre-kindergarten. You graduated from kindergarten, then from elementary school, middle school, high school, and now from college. But I submit that you have graduated more times than you know. You and I were born as helpless babies who could not survive without the nurturing, care and love of our parents, especially our mothers. When a newborn is hungry (for the science majors, that is driven by low blood sugar, below 70 mg percent) the baby screams. “Mama is coming,” and she brings the bottle or the breast. This goes on day and night until something miraculous–and I choose the word miraculous advisedly—it miraculously happens around age week to week and week and half. Let me explain this miracle: when the baby gets hungry and screams and while mother is saying “Mama is coming,” the baby equates the voice of the mother to anticipated gratification and stops screaming momentarily. But if Mama falls asleep, of course the baby resumes screaming. At the ripe old age of 10 days, the anlage or the infrastructure of ego functions are laid. Yes, we all graduated from this stage of extreme narcissism and self- centeredness at the age of 10 days. It is a miracle.

Then, you graduated from infancy, learning to sit, to stand, to crawl, to walk, to run, and to separate and individuate, running away from mama only to return and hide behind her skirt. Games like peak-a-boo reinforce this phase. Then you graduated from childhood. You later graduated from latency phase of growth and development, age seven to twelve, and entered adolescence. You went through adolescence and negotiated the vicissitudes of teen years and graduated into adulthood. And now with the support and continuous love and sacrifice of your parents you are graduating from college as a well- balanced, educated, mature person.

The purpose of life is to turn that narcissistic bundle, the newborn baby, into the altruistic and loving adults you all are.  Let’s briefly examine the attributes of an altruistic and loving adult. This person for the most part of waking hour is aware that he or she is a child of God. Not the child of a mayor, the child of a governor, the child of a king, the child of a President, a Shah, an Emperor, or an Ayatollah, we are children of God.  Do you know of a loftier position in all creation?  Being aware of this gift given to us at birth is the essence of Pauline theology of Grace and Christian love.

This person for the most part of waking hours has good feelings, happy feelings, and as result has good thoughts and does good things. Doing good things is vastly different from being a do-gooder. Doing a good deed is altruistic. Being a do-gooder may be narcissistic and self- serving.

This person is a joyful person. The etymology of the word joy is the Sanskrit word (and Farsi) JOOYE, meaning a running brook. Let me explain: a camel driver crossing the desert in a 100 degree heat in the shade for several days, reaches an oasis with trees, grass and a running brook of clear cold water. He waters his camels, then takes a fistful of this cold and refreshing water and drinks it and splashes some on his face. The feelings at that moment generated by JOOYE, the running brook, is where JOY comes from. Joy, like a running brook, is constant. It is refreshing. It is life giving…  this person is not just happy, but JOYFUL. Happiness is temporary, evanescent, and artificial, while joy is constant, refreshing and life giving… be joyful.

This person makes a pledge, a resolve to be a growing person. What is growth? To me, growth consists of three parts: to know more today than I did yesterday, to do fewer bad things today than I did yesterday, and to love more today than I did yesterday. Knowing more every day is a demanding and disciplined task. At my age, every night I go to bed, I take an inventory of what I know. I mean sheer knowledge. If I have NOT learned more today than I did yesterday, I get out of the bed and go read my medical, science and humanities journals. You and I must be aware of the responsibility of enriching our cognitive reservoir. Yes, we must know more today than we did yesterday. The sheer act of learning and internalizing knowledge is pure joy. We all do bad things. Good people do bad things. We must take an inventory that we did fewer bad things today than yesterday. This is what Saint Paul theology calls power of redemption. And to be a growing person, we must be more loving today than we were yesterday.

Now, what is love? We love our Aunt Molly, Cousin Bert; we love apple pie and the beach, and BBQ. Love is one of the most confusing words in English lexicon. English language, young, accessible and dynamic as it is, is very short on affective words, feeling words, words that describe feelings. There are dozens of Arabic words whose equivalent in English is one word “love”. It is frustrating to use the same four letter word for the rich reservoir of feelings we experience in our lives. So let me resort to Greek.

In Greek, there are three words for love: Eros, the love involving sex, reproduction and carnal fusing necessary for procreation. Philia, the love we have for our relatives, brothers, cousins, and extended family. But the love I want to focus upon is the third Greek word, Agape, which is the love God has for all of us, and we must learn to have it for all humanity. Let’s focus on Agape, the kind of love that God has for us. It has three parts: a loving person is not abusive to one’s self, a loving person does not use and abuse alcohol, does not smoke, does not use drugs, and does not get fat. The epidemic of obesity in America causes diabetes, cardiovascular disease, back pain, bringing a health care bill approaching 20% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Obesity is a very serious form of self-abuse which is not loving. Obesity is a moral issue. Second leg of Agape is not to be abusive to one’s fellow man, regardless of what you do for a living. As a physician, don’t abuse your patients by making them wait for you. For garbage collectors, don’t strew the stuff all over the street, be neat, do not abuse others- including the US government by cheating on taxes. And lastly, the third leg, do not let anyone else abuse you. Learn to say “NO” and mean it. Do not let friends talk you into doing abusive things. Love, like a tripod, has to have all three legs to stand up.

Now, I want to introduce you to three role models who have shown us how to be loving and lovable. These three brilliant stars of the intellectual constellation are Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Saint Augustine was a pagan. He was a brilliant student throughout his entire life, but as he grew up he did a lot of bad things, like stealing from his parents to buy toys and literally purchase acceptance and friendship of his peers, that is to say, to be popular. He used to steal apples from his neighbor’s yard, not because he was hungry, but because it was fun to do. He lied to his mother repeatedly. As he grew up, he sired an illegitimate son by a concubine. He converted into Christianity at age 31 and after a couple of years became a Bishop of the city of Hippo. All this is recorded in his 13 book “Confessions”. The first nine books are autobiographical and the last four exegetical, an analysis of the book of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. Augustine wrote more than five million words.

The second role model is the Jewish physician, Rabbi, philosopher and theologian, Moses Maimonides of Cordoba, Rambam, (1135-1204).  He, too, wrote more than five million words. And the third person is the Arab economist, theologian and music advocate, Ibn Khaldoun (1332-1406). Surprisingly, he, too, wrote more than five million words. Islam prohibited music and the arts for fear of inviting and spreading lust into society.  Ibn Khaldoun was very much interested in bringing music back to Islam. He knew as an exception singing the passages of the Holy Quran (Bible of the Muslims) called Talavat  is acceptable. So he petitioned the ruling Caliph to start a competition singing the text of Quran, just like our Oscars. The competition began in 1352 when he was 20 and continues to this day. All Muslim nations send delegations of singers to these annual competitions. This has played in war, in peace, in famine and in plenty, since 1352. As an aside, another piece of music that has continuously played since its opening night, Christmas Eve 1741, is Handel’s Messiah. On the opening night King George II was in the audience. When the chorale sang the Alleluia Chorus, the king was so moved that he stood up giving an ovation. This is why to this day we, too, stand up when Alleluia Chorus is sung. Like Talavat,Messiah has played continuously in war and peace, in famine and plenty since its debut in 1741.

So, let’s see what these gifted people, the residents of the Pantheon of superior intellect, spirituality and faith tell us. These three people wrote more than 16 million words in their life time. I do not pretend that I have read every word of what they have written, but I have read a good bit of their writings. To give you a summary in the form of a gift that I hope you take home with you, repeat it in your mind, and if you would, like a favorite song, hum it until it becomes a part of you.

Here is what they said.  Here is what these three most accomplished and brilliant children of God said: the pathway to salvation and grace is “to know what is good inside of you, namely brain, this wondrous two and half pounds mass of billions of neurons, that is nerve cells, and trillions of synapses where these neurons chemically inter-connect,  love, compassion, loyalty, faith, intellect and self-awareness; and what is good outside of you, namely friends, connectedness, family, flowers, dance, poetry, music and beauty of nature, and to be thankful for them ‘by giving something back.’  This is the beginning of altruism, philanthropy LOVE OF MANKIND, and joy. Remember, it all started when you were only 10 days old…

Let me repeat and pass onto you the gift these three people have given to us so that their gift may become an integral part of our mentation, cognition, perception and lives: To know what is good inside of you, namely brain and intellect, love, compassion, loyalty, faith, intellect and self-awareness; and what is good outside of you, namely friends, connectedness, family, flowers, dance, poetry, music and beauty of nature, and be thankful for them by giving something back…”

Yes, you and I are privileged to be children of not a mayor, not a king, not a governor, not a President, not a Shah or Ayatollah…You and I are children of God- all seven billion of us occupy that lofty status.

Yes, we have many good things inside of us, many good things outside of us. And we will be constantly aware of them and be thankful for them by giving something back…

And now I close by recalling a passage from one of the most beloved poets of the 20th century, Khalil Gibran: “Empty and dark shall I raise my lantern, and the Guardian of the night shall fill it with oil, and He shall light it also…”  May your lanterns be always full, and may they be lighted also.

God Bless America.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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On the Science of Memory

“Monday Musings” for Monday April 27, 2015

Volume V. No. 17/225

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Science Series. Part II: PTSD

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

 

In her memoirs, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wrote of her flashbacks of the November 22, 1963 assassination of her late husband. She was suffering from PTSD. The official description of PTSD, or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, published by Veterans Affair is “a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of a life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood. Most survivors of trauma return to normal given a little time. However, some people will have stress reactions that do not go away on their own, or may even get worse over time. These individuals may develop PTSD. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person’s daily life.

People with PTSD experience three different kinds of symptoms. The first set of symptoms involves reliving the trauma in some way such as becoming upset when confronted with a traumatic reminder or thinking about the trauma when you are trying to do something else. The second set of symptoms involves either staying away from places or people that remind you of the trauma, isolating from other people, or feeling numb. The third set of symptoms includes things such as feeling on guard, irritable, or startling “easily.”

It is estimated that 8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, with women twice as likely as men to develop PTSD. About 3.6 percent of U.S. adults aged 18 to 54 (5.2 million people) have PTSD during the course of a given year. This represents a small portion of those who have experienced at least one traumatic event. The traumatic events most often associated with PTSD for men are rape, combat exposure, childhood neglect, and childhood physical abuse. The most traumatic events for women are rape, sexual molestation, physical attack, being threatened with a weapon, and childhood physical abuse.

What does science have to offer?

In my daily reading diet I value several publications which include ScienceNatureNew England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and Lancet.  Lately, I have been impressed by another journal PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS). It is a publication that translates experimental laboratory data into clinical practice. It is one thing to accomplish or make discoveries in the laboratory with animals. But it may take years and years before the results are applied in clinical practice to humans. In that sense PLOS is unique. It is a truly translational journal. Its purpose is to speed up the process of applying laboratory discoveries into bedside patient care and clinical practice.

In its August 27, 2014 issue PLOS published a study by Marc J. Kaufman, PhD, Director of the McLean Hospital Translational Imaging Laboratory and colleague Edward G. Meloni, PhD, which is of seminal value and lasting benefit. In this study the two scientists discovered that rat exposure to Xenon, a noble (inert) gas blocks traumatic memories. It becomes very useful to block bad memories in individuals suffering from PTSD. The chemistry is fancy but simple. Memories are stored and transmitted in specific parts of the brain called amygdala, hippocampus and frontal cortex. They are transported by many neurotransmitters in the brain from the memory centers to other parts of the brain. The most prevalent neurotransmitter charged with transporting memory is N-Methyl-D-Aspartate (NMDA). Just a word about what is a neurotransmitter– a neurotransmitter is like a bus or a car that carries messages from one nerve cell (neuron) to other parts of the brain. The key to interfering with transmission of memory is to interrupt the neuronic flow mediated by NMDA. In essence, take a chemical scalpel and cut off or tie off the flow of NMDA. Well, Kaufman and Meloni hit the pay dirt. They discovered Xenon is the chemical that accomplishes the task and perform the surgical procedure in rats. Here is an abstract of the publication.

Xenon (Xe) is a noble (inert) gas. These gases belong in group O of the periodic chart.  The group includes radon, helium, neon, argon, and krypton. Xenon gas has been developed for use in people as an inhalational anesthetic and in diagnostic imaging procedures. Xenon inhibits receptors involved in learning and memory and affect those parts of the brain, namely amygdala and hippocampus, responsible for memory formation and information storage. When Xenon is administered after memory of a trauma is formed (they call it fear memory), the memory disappears after the Xenon is administered. Male rats were used to develop this elegant animal model of PTSD they call fear-conditioning. The rats were trained to be afraid of environmental clues that were paired with brief foot shock. The researcher found that a single exposure to the Xenon gas blocked memory formation in the brain, dramatically and persistently reducing fear responses up to two weeks. The researchers are planning to apply the work to humans. The research holds much promise for those millions suffering from PTSD.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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On the Science of Memory

“Monday Musings”  for Monday April 20, 2015

Volume V.  No. 16/224
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The Science Series: Memory

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Part I:  The nature of Memory

Faithful readers of this space recall our review of the book “Searching for Memory” by Daniel Schacter, a UNC alumnus and now professor of psychology at Harvard. In that book with an outline of different types of memory, Schacter devoted a broad section to persistent memory which is the hallmark of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, recurring unpleasant memories. In this piece, after describing and discussing the phenomenology and architectonics of memory and its types, I will focus on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

Schacter’s research explores the relation between conscious and unconscious forms of memory, the nature of memory distortions, how individuals use memory to imagine possible future events, enhancement of online learning, as well as the effects of aging on memory. In general, there are four large categories of memory which are always included in psychiatric evaluation and standard mental status examination. They are:

1)    Episodic memory: dealing with the patient’s ability to recount biographic data such as dates, places of significant events of life, marriage, birth of children, service in the Armed Forces, travels and jobs.

2)    Somatic memory: has to do with the functions of various parts of the brain, and the reaction of those brain structures to the cascade of neuronal hormones sweeping over them. Somatic memory is often affected by anxiety and depression.

3)    Procedural memory: how well the patient can repeat a series of numbers or objects forward and backward, immediately, or after a given time lapse, and how well the patient may recall a seven part story.

4)    Verbal fluency memory: testing a patient’s ability to generate words starting with a given letter, such as “O”. The number of such words generated in a given time, say one minute, and the quality of the words generated, reveal much about the patient’s memory and general fund of knowledge and vocabulary. For example, if a patient is asked to generate in one minute words starting with the letter ”O”, and he goes on like a machine giving words in alphabetic order such as “octave, octennial, octet, octillion, octillionth, October, octodecimo, octogenarian, octomerous, octoary, octoploid, octopod, octopus, octoroon, …” etc., you know that he excels in verbal fluency memory and is of superior intellect.

Schacter characterizes memory in a different way.  He calls these seven sins of memory “The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets”.

    • 1)  Transience–the decreasing accessibility of memory. Schacter cited as a somewhat facetious example former President Bill Clinton’s “convenient lapses of memory” during the Monica Lewinsky investigation. Clinton claimed in the hearings that he sometimes couldn’t remember what had happened the previous week.
    • 2)  Absent-mindedness–lapses of attention and forgetting to do things. Examples, said Schacter, are forgetting where you put your keys or glasses. He noted a particularly famous instance in which cellist Yo-Yo Ma forgot to retrieve his $2.5 million cello from the trunk of a New York City cab.
    • 3)  Blocking–temporary inaccessibility of stored information, such as tip-of-the-tongue syndrome. Schacter recounted the embarrassment of John Prescott, British deputy prime minister, when a reporter asked him how the government was paying for the expensive Millennium Dome. Prescott struggled to find the word “lottery,” trying “raffles” instead.
    • 4)  Suggestibility–incorporation of misinformation into memory due to leading questions, deception and other causes.
    • 5)  Bias— For example, research indicates that people currently displeased with a romantic relationship tend to have a disproportionately negative take on past states of the relationship.
    • 6)  Persistence–unwanted recollections that people can’t forget, such as the unrelenting, intrusive memories of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. They become a “tragic prisoner of memory,” and some eventually commit suicide.
    • 7)  Misattribution–attribution of memories to incorrect sources or believing that you have seen or heard something you haven’t.

Next week, Part II, we will discuss Post-traumatic Stress Disorder which has to do with sustained unwanted, obsessive intrusive memory.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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On Being American

“Monday Musings” for Monday April 06, 2015

Volume V, No.14/222

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Love Affair with the English Language:

The Catechism of Being an American

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Today’s Musings are imbued with personal memories. They have to do with my choosing to come to America to study medicine, among other things. You see, I was not born an American. I chose to be an American. I entered the US on April 7, 1955, exactly 60 years ago this coming Thursday. In order to go to college and prepare for my medical education, I knew that I had to learn English rather quickly. In months between April and September when college opened, I memorized the 285,000 words of the 1955 edition of the Oxford Dictionary. Later, I expanded this knowledge and learned the etymology of practically every one of those words. Soon, I learned that Dr. Samuel Johnson exactly 200 years before my date of entry, namely April 7, 1755 had compiled the first English Dictionary. The very first edition of the Oxford Dictionary was compiled in 1857a la Dr. Johnson’s original compendium. I found a copy of that precious book through the Library of Congress. The edition contains 50,000 words. I enjoyed memorizing it, also, and forming an adoring relationship with the work of the late Dr. Johnson and through him with the English language. As an aside, the original Dr. Johnson’s 50,000 word dictionary was a part of the personal library of Thomas Jefferson, sold to US Government which became the germinating seed of our beloved US Library of Congress.

Three years were spent in college pre-medical education with majors in English and Chemistry. I entered medical school in 1958. In 1962, exactly seven years after coming to the US, I had earned Doctor of Medicine (MD).

My intense experience with the English language, which continues to this day, brought me close to much older and wiser linguists and University Professors. Among them was the late Samuel Hayakawa, the then Chancellor of San Francisco State University, who in 1977 became a US Senator from California. He used to get a kick out of my referring to him as the semi-somnolent septuagenarian, Senator Samuel Hayakawa. I wrote a letter to Hayakawa and to our own then Senator Jesse Helms who also knew something about my love for the English language, suggesting that they sponsor a bill to make English the official language of America. I even sent some money to defray expenses associated with the authorship of the bill, etc…I believe a bill was introduced but never passed.

In my communications with the mighty solons, instead of concentrating on the importance of the subject matter, Senator Helms enjoyed my ability to close my eyes and recite page after page of the Oxford Dictionary, “octave, octennial, octet, octillion, octillionth, October, octodecimo, octogenarian, octomerous, octoary, octoploid, octopod, octopus, octoroon, etc…I continue to believe that we need a law that makes English the official language of this nation. Enough of wasting money to print ballots in 56 languages–that is profligacy not progress…

With all my emotional and intellectual resources, I believe making English the official language of America is the most important issue in today’s political discourse.  It is an abomination and travesty that folks can come to America, live for as many as 30 years, and know not who Abraham Lincoln is, or the first thing about our flag, or the Founding Fathers of the US Constitution. I believe that to be an American, one must know the English language, know the bare essentials of our Constitution, our Republic, our Bill of Rights and the story of the birth of this nation and our Founding Fathers. What are the requirements to be an American? In my view, the catechism of being an American should consist of a good knowledge, if not verbatim memorization, of four documents. They are the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers and George Washington’s Farewell Address.

Please feel free to call on me and use me as a reference to further this, what I consider to be a holy cause.

God Bless America!

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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On Moosa’s Ghazali

“Monday Musings” for Monday March 26, 2015

Volume V, No. 12/220

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Book Review

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Ghazali & The Poetics of Imaginations

by Ebrahim Moosa
Introduction: 32 pages, 289 pages of text, 28 pages of Notes
five pages of Glossary, 22 pages of Bibliography
and 12 pages of index
Publisher: UNC Press, 2005

The intoxicating intellectual celebration of Persian New Year—Norooz—lingers…We thought the review of a book related to that region of the world might soothe the thirst.

Of the eminent Persian poet and philosopher, Hamid Ghazali, we spoke in the pages of the October issue, WCP, with a promise for more. The reader will recall that we discussed Ghazali’s devotion to seeking, learning, and discovering through his devotion to faith on the one hand, and skepticism on the other, a true intellectual oxymoron. The issue of faith and skepticism, like many other confounding discourses, such as Saint Augustine of Hippo’s theory of predestination and will, present theological oxymoron, if not conundrums. We are keeping our promise by reviewing a most remarkable book about Al-Ghazali by Professor Ebrahim Moosa.

As a child, I recall my father encouraging us to read Al-Ghazali to strengthen the gift of doubt in his children.  In a recent conversation with a learned friend about education, after a lengthy discussion, we agreed that in order to encourage our college students to adopt a more vigorous orientation and grounding in critical thinking, they should read Al-Ghazali and Abu Nasr Farabi (872-950, known to West as Alfarabius), also a Persian polymath, scientist, poet, philosopher and theologian.

Who was AL-Ghazali

Abū Hāmid Muhammad ibn al-Ghazālī (1058-1111) was born and died in Tus, in the Khorasan province of Persia (modern day Iran). He was an Islamic theologian, jurist, philosopher, cosmologist, physician, psychologist and mystic of Persian origin, and remains one of the most celebrated scholars in the history of Sufi Islamic thought. He is considered a pioneer of the methods of doubt and skepticism, and in one of his major works, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he changed the course of early Islamic philosophy, shifting it away from an Islamic metaphysics influenced by ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, and towards an Islamic philosophy based on cause-and-effect that were determined by God or intermediate angels, a theory now known as “occasionalism.”

After the 32 page comprehensive introduction, nine sections and a conclusion follow. The book is a symphonic rhapsody of the understanding of the “SELF.”  It is very difficult to translate the Arabic word NAFS or NAFS-AL-EMAREH into a meaningful English word. The word “SELF” may asymptotically approach the true meaning of NAFS but never reaches the complexity, richness and centricity of its Arabic equivalent. This book is all about “SELF”.

The first segment “Agnostics of the Self”, pushing skepticism to its limit, the author acknowledges that Ghazali’s ethics are at time inseparable from his poetics (imagination.)

In section 2 of this book, author Ebrahim Moosa devotes the discourse to “Narrativity of the Self”, a brilliant exegesis of Ghazali’s ability to wed poetic imagination and rational ideas. He forwards the argument that Ghazali was skeptical toward “and took a dim view of the confabulations promoted by specialist raconteurs and story-tellers.” As a physician, I am acutely aware that confabulation is a symptom of systemic poisoning of certain parts of the brain, namely Para-median grey that is destroyed by too much alcohol and cannabis. The pseudo-Sufis of Ghazali’s time, one may conclude, did indulge heavily in both.

Section 3, “Poetics of Memory and Writings”  reminded me of the book 11 of Saint Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, devoted entirely to memory. It combines Plato’s views on writing, some explanation of the origin of the myth of writing, and explores authoritatively, the contribution of Neo-Platonist to understanding memory and writing.

The subsequent six sections on “Liminality and Exile”, ”Grammar of the Self” which includes “Grammar of Religion”, “Metaphysics of Belief—Faith in a Nutshell”, “Dilemma of Anathema of Heresy”, ”Hermeneutics of the Self” and “Technologies of the Self” complete the volume.

Who is Ebrahim Moosa?

Dr. Moosa is Associate Research Professor of religious studies and Director of The Center for the Study of Muslim Networks at Duke University. In my experience with languages, the humanities, and religious studies, I have found that these fields attract a disproportionate number of pretend-scholars, phonies, and pseudo-historians, if not downright charlatans. There are “experts” in Mowlana Masnavi Molavi Rumi who market distorted ideas and cleverly sell Rumi, while not knowing a word of Farsi, the language of Rumi. Edward Fitzgerald and Rubaiiat (quatrains) of Omar Khayyam is another example of clever marketing and exploitation of the most holy name in Sufism. For example, in one quatrain, where Khayyam speaks of a “14 year old beloved and a two year old wine….” he is not speaking of a lecherous pedophile who is a wine guzzler. Khayyam is speaking of Prophet Mohammad pbwh who at the age 40 (four ten or ‘fourteen’) was called upon by Angel Gabriel to found Islam, and it took two years (the fruit or the wine), the Holy Quoran, to be completed. These are but a few examples of the attraction of the fields of humanities and religious studies for the unwashed and uninitiated pseudo-scholars who exploit their subjects…

Professor Moosa is not a phony! He is an Arab, he knows the language, and has a deep understanding of the Arab and Persian cultures. His remarkable knowledge of the subject and brilliant exegesis of the life and writings of Al-Ghazali make reading of his book a sheer pleasure. For those who would like to gain a better understanding of the rich tapestry of Sufism, mysticism and witness the holy marriage of poetry, transcendent imagination, and disciplined facts of the past (not history), this book is gold mine.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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On the Commonality of God and Faith

“Monday Musings” for Monday December 22, 2014

Volume IV, No. 51/207

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The Night of Yalda, more from Mowlana Rumi (Rumi-nation)

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

There is a syzygy in the holy month of December. The stars are aligned to bring us four events carefully choreographed to produce a cosmic feast. The first event, of course, is Christmas on December 25. The other three events are Winter Solstice, December 21, the longest night of the year, Shab-e-Yalda (see below) and the shortest day of the year. The third event, to some of us equally important, is the birth of Ludwig Van (not Von) Beethoven on December 16, which this year is the beginning of Hanukah. Although not a religious holiday like Yom Kippur, Hanukkah is about rededication to the will of Yahweh. Reading religious holy books including Zoroaster’s Avesta; Hindu’s sacred and magnificent book, Bhagavad Gita; Moses’ Torah, Christians’ Bible, especially Paul’s letters in the New Testament; and Islam’s Qur’an, one becomes acutely aware of commonality of the message of these books: love, duty, responsibility, redemption, promise and possibilities for all humans, for all children of God.

SHAB-E YALDA

December 21 is the longest night of the year. In Mede and Persian history and Zoroastrian tradition, it is a holy night, “Night of Birth”, the birth of Mithra, the God of illumination and salvation. The birth of Ahura Mazda. Persian poets have written extensively about the night of Yalda (Shab-e-Yalda). Here is a stanza from Baba Taher Oryan (950-1019), the mystical Persian poet who roamed the mountains of Hamadan naked:

 

“Shab-e-Yalda is the longest night of the year,

To have more time to read and learn…

To have more time to worship….

To have more time to reflect…

To have more time to connect with the beloved and

To have more time to nurture one’s soul…”

 

We know that Plato wrote extensively about the soul, Zoroastrianism, and the night of Yalda…

May you have a fruitful and joyous Yalda night.

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More Rumi

For those hungry souls who write and want more of the wisdom and poetry of Mowlana, here is a bit of “Rumi-nation” (pun intended). This poem is about evolution:

 

Low in the earth

I lived in realms of ore and stone;

And then I smiled in many flowers;

Them roving with the wild and wandering hours,

O’er earth and air and ocean’s zone,

In a new birth,

I dived and flew,

And crept and ran,

And all the secret of my essence drew

Within a form that brought them all to view-

And lo, a Man!

And then my goal.

Beyond the clouds, beyond the sky,

In realms where none may change or die-

In angel form; and then away

Beyond the bounds of night and day,

And Life and Death, unseen or seen,

Where all that is hath ever been,

As One and Whole.

 

(Rumi: Thadani’s Translation.)

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

 

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