When I was a kid my friends would ask me to explain what my dad did for a living. How do you explain to an eight year old boy what a psychiatrist does? I kind of knew that they helped people with ‘mind problems,’ but that was about it. I could barely pronounce my own last name, much less the word ‘psychiatrist.’ And then there was the added complication that my dad was actually a ‘psychoanalyst.’ I was completely baffled by this profession and no one could offer me an even remotely satisfying explanation.
So I looked for clues.
My dad had a couch in his office, where apparently his patients would lay down. And the office was very dark. There was a box of tissues by the couch. Were people crying a lot? It would seem so. This whole business of exploring the mind seemed very strange. My friends were spooked by my father. They asked me constantly if he could read their minds. I hadn’t thought about it, but since they kept asking I paid attention more to this question. Over time it turned out that my father indeed had a strong sense of things that other people seemed not to be able to sense.
How did he do this? There is no easy answer, but a recent New Yorker article by Malcom Gladwell (about criminal profilers who stalk serial killers) offers some insight as well as some additional questions. My own take, after many years of thinking about it, is that what happens inside most of our minds is more transparent than we realize. This is surprising only because we’re so wrapped up in our own minds that we rarely have any sense of how other people’s minds work. A lot of the ‘deep secrets’ that we fear to reveal are actually pretty commonplace. Finding out what goes on in the human mind may be shocking to many people, but to folks in the professions with the unpronounceable names that begin with the letter "P" it’s actually pretty easy.