Letters to the Editors, March/April 2011

Letters to the editor about the November/December 2010 issue of Scientific American MIND Readers Respond to "Mind Over Magic?"—and More...

Your article in the November/December issue on how habits of perception and brain functioning are essential for so much of the success of magic tricks [“Mind over Magic?” by Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, with Sandra Blakeslee] was fascinating to me. It reminded me of an interesting ob­servation about magic I accidentally made back in the 1970s. 

I was watching a television special by magician Doug Henning. Normally I’m the perfect audience for magic tricks; I go with the flow and gasp in amazement. But this time, after half an hour, I turned off the TV, bored, because I saw a probable opening for each illusion.

Why the change? I was tired, and so I was lying on my side to watch the show, with my head horizontal instead of vertical. I realized that our habits of perceptual construction are almost always learned and reinforced while we are in an upright position. Somehow lying down did not provide the implicit body cues associated with all those learned expectations, so my attention was not led in the normal way.

I have tried it a few times since, and I do not recommend it if you want to enjoy magic shows!

Charles T. Tart
Palo Alto, California

I applaud Jonathan Shedler’s emphasis on the tremendous value of psychodynamic therapy in your November/December issue’s “Getting to Know Me.”

I have been a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst for more than three decades, and I have seen many people greatly helped by this method of treatment.

But I also have seen many people helped immensely by psychoanalysis, which is by no means a method of treatment only of “yesteryear.” Many young therapists are still studying and practicing psychoanalysis as well as psychodynamic psychotherapy. Many hundreds of analysts have added to Freud’s pioneering ideas over the past century.

Yet I must reiterate that I am grateful that your article was so positive about the reality and value of psychodynamic psychotherapy.

Landrum S. Tucker, Jr.
Psychoanalytic Institute of the Carolinas
Chapel Hill, N.C.

I initially welcomed the article on psychodynamic therapy in the last issue. It started with gusto and provided a succinct and informative overview of its key principles and techniques and the most recent evidence for its efficacy.

Regrettably, however, the article was compromised by an ongoing comparison to a description of cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) that was ill informed and inaccurate. CBT does not “seek to persuade” patients, nor is it focused on “mental illness” but on people seeking help for distress.

Contrary to the impressions in Shed­ler’s article, CBT is based around a collaborative relationship between the therapist and client, who develop a shared understanding of the links between thoughts, feelings, behaviors, other people, and the unconscious rules and assumptions of the client. CBT therapists are consistently rated as having the strongest therapeutic alliances with their clients compared with other therapists.

The article gave the impression that psychodynamic therapy has a larger effect size than CBT from “one major study” that is not referenced. This is not a fair reflection of the literature. Differences between the effectiveness of different therapies are rarely identified, but still, a range of reviews points to the advantages of CBT over psychodynamic therapy.

Psychodynamic therapy has its own scientific foundations and appeal and therefore should not have to rely on an argument against a straw man in the form of a caricature of CBT nor on a selective review of the literature to make its case as a viable contemporary therapy. This only serves to isolate the field further and miss the opportunity to provide a shared vision of psychotherapy that could truly benefit a wide range of people.

This article was originally published with the title "Letters."

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