Seniors Traveling Virtually

Senior woman using vr glassesExciting things continue to happen at the interface between tech and psychology.  In this case new applications in Virtual Reality are serving the needs of seniors in retirement homes who tend to be limited in their ability to travel and continue experiencing the world directly.  We know that depression in seniors can result from the inevitable decline in health and the related difficulty of being present and engaged in social events. is a new startup testing out the ability of seniors to travel virtually and experience the world in new ways.  One application of this is for family members to rent the camera system that would allow the senior to experience an event in real time as though he/she were present in person.  What an exciting idea!  See the story here.

A similar idea has been piloted in Australia by Feros Care where a robot (IPad mounted on a Segway) can roam in various locations all the while controlled remotely by seniors in a retirement home.  How cool is that !

(Here’s a local example in San Francisco using more static content. )

While the robot system has some advantages of mechanically responding to instructions from the senior, I wonder if a human avatar would be more responsive and adaptable.  In the future there might be a new industry of human “traveling avatars”, equipped with camera systems, who would be employed to travel to interesting destinations or events, live-feeding the experience back to the senior who would otherwise not be able to attend.  While there is no substitute for “being there”, this could be the closest experience for a senior who would otherwise not be able to have the experience…

Renting a Virtual Girlfriend is not a Real Solution

Cute girl in masquerade mask

The quick on demand satisfaction of needs has been a growing trend in different areas.  We have all kinds of quick solutions such as on demand food deliveries, on demand streaming movies and video content, on demand televideo medical visits, on demand office space, and on demand delivery of packages.  A recent article in The Week illustrated the Japanese phenomena of on demand or rented friends, people who could be paid to play the part of a platonic companion when needed.

The article described the typical functions of these actors and actresses as providing the elements of an affable friendship such as companionship, listening, and empathy even if it is contrived.  Sometimes a more active social masquerade may be needed such as pretending to be the girlfriend of a socially awkward, workaholic client so that his parents won’t be unduly worried.  The author interviews the CEO of Client Partners, one of the largest rent a friend firms in Japan, who described some of the challenges facing Japanese culture such as loneliness, the lack of true engagement, the (discrepancy) between outward and inward identities, and the difficulty in dealing with overwork and many other national cultural anxieties while presenting the outward face of serenity.

It looks like this phenomena is not just Japanese but has been common for some time in mainland China especially during the Chinese New Year holiday when most people who are able, travel home to relatives and parents who may be unduly intrusive and concerned about their socially awkward son or aging daughter being single.  Here are some articles that describe the appeasement of demanding parents, how February is the hardest month to be single in China, the benefits of a virtual girlfriend, and how renting a girlfriend can improve your self esteem.

I thought this might be a uniquely Asian cultural phenomena but it turns out that some enterprising entrepreneurs have already addressed this niche with on demand services here in the US such as will even offer to create a fake “gamer girlfriend” who can over time integrate herself into your online gaming network.

Many of the sites explicitly state that they are not an escort service or prostitution ring and are purely platonic.  Some of the articles about the rental services in China depict rental friends who have a slippery slope to more sexualized services.  Where fantasy mimics reality, it’s not hard to imagine this being a universal temptation and danger for willing actors and actresses.

As a therapist, I sometimes work with clients who have social anxiety or who may have a history of some  kind of interpersonal abuse.  It is part of the reparative work to increase social skills and overcome past traumas to create real social engagement.  This is not an on demand process and takes real time and real effort.  We know real friendships and romantic relationships can be messy.  There can be misunderstandings, conflicts, rejections, even betrayals, but also the reward of trust and shared experience that comes from working through these challenges.  I can see how rent a friend services could be a potentially useful tool for a client to learn skills to use in real relationships.  However the rise of these services is disturbing in that at their core consumers of the service essentially give in to the fear of confronting true loneliness, awkwardness, parental pressures, and social pressures for a temporary fantasy.  The clear basis in treatments for overcoming anxiety is that the best long term strategy is to face our fears and to learn to overcome them.  That’s the real solution.

Your Brain on Porn

young man in bed couch at home late at night with intense face expression using mobile phone in low light watching online porn enjoying alone in internet addictionI recently found several resources that are helpful in portraying the effects of porn on the brain:

The Great Porn Experiment

Adolescent Brain Meets High Speed Porn

One of the videos is a TED talk by Gary Wilson, affiliated with the site who is listed as a past physiology teacher.  He noted in one of his disclaimers that he is not religious and doesn’t want to do away with porn, but is also dedicating a lot of effort in highlighting research studies that reveal the harmful effects of porn.  His Ted talk and the other video on the effects of high speed internet porn on the adolescent brain are best understood with some background on the  assumptions that he makes and some basic information about scientific research.

The videos highlight several animal studies and draw potential implications for humans watching porn.  This is due to some limitations of direct experimentation on people and also a long established history of using animal brain models to extrapolate potential similarities in the human brain.

The premise of the “Great Porn Experiment” is that it has been difficult for researchers to find control subjects, often college-aged men, who can attest that they have not had exposure to porn.  This lack of a control makes it difficult to conduct the classical scientific experiment that would seek to observe the effect of altering a single variable compared with the control group.

However, a within-group control has in effect developed due to a growing trend of men who have unhooked themselves from porn due to their experiencing porn induced erectile dysfunction (PIED).   Thus we can have some qualitative accounts of before and after effects of stopping porn.

Many men have finally found the motivation to stop porn when they have gotten to the point of erectile dysfunction and the reaching the conclusion that the hyperstimulated desensitization of porn on chemical pathways in the brain is causing problems in the bedroom and a dysfunction from an evolutionary perspective.  While Gary’s lack of a “religious” perspective limits his acknowledgement of a Creator who designed sexual functioning, at least he can document that dysfunction is happening.  Chasing increasingly stimulating porn, darker porn, or porn that may not be aligned with your sexual orientation, is not a harmless exercise but in fact may lead to potentially serious physical, emotional, and psychological consequences.

These videos can be a helpful wake up call to the growing epidemic of porn use and highlight the newer trend of unhooking from porn.  The website also has a list of referenced research articles, other testimonies, and resources that may be helpful.


Hooking Up: Learning From the College Front

Image of happy girl looking at her glass while young man pouring cocktail into it with friends near byI was recently part of a Pastor’s luncheon to discuss the Hookup Culture in the church and I’d like to  summarize my comments about college campuses potentially being a model to help churches understand how to address this issue.

If this is an issue for some of the people attending churches then it is certainly a widespread cultural challenge on college campuses.  Can we learn from how college parachurch ministries/Christian colleges are addressing this issue?  I believe that It is important to look at approaches in this area because graduating Christian college students will be the single young adults soon bringing their broken relational experiences to the church and to the counseling office.

What are similarities between college ministries/colleges and the local church in terms of approaches to hookup culture?  There are often groups of single young adults in a similar stage of life who are exploring their independence.  There is some formal or informal expectation of a “code of conduct” that may or may not be taken seriously.  Many young people show up to college or their local church primed by past experiences and intake of porn, alcohol, and drugs.  There is also a delicate sense of co-dependence: students want an education and the “college experience” and educational institutions have a responsibility to educate students but also need to maintain the stream of tuition to keep in business.  Similarly, young people want a church home and churches bear a responsibility to nurture believers but also want to maintain some level of commitment of attendance and contributions.  There can be a conflict of interest if educational institutions and churches lose their bearings and are tempted out of self-interest not to be “too imposing” or “old-fashioned.”

What are some differences between college ministries/colleges and the local church in terms of hookup culture?   College students have worked hard to be admitted so they are not likely to transfer to a different school; however, commitment to a local congregation may be much more fluid.  There may be more and more young people who balk at the traditional idea of church “membership” and whose commitment may be much more tenuous.  Depending on the demographics of the church, there may be an inter-generational mix of believers with a larger pool of more mature/integrated believers.  Whether these more mature believers can be a positive influence and guide for struggling young adults or whether they are able to connect to the younger generation remains to be seen.  This mix may also likely influence how much hookup culture is addressed in the church and whether it remains an underground taboo as opposed to a much more open and in your face issue on college campuses.

From a sampling of some articles (see the reference list below) on approaches to hookup culture, I’d like to summarize a few points that stand out.  One approach is to expand the conversation to educate students to think about sex on a much broader level to help students see that it really isn’t just an unemotional detached encounter.  Young graduates can easily see how a history of quick hookups leaves a trail of long lasting emotional scars.   At the least, the secular college can aim for the politically correct “consent” agreement between parties but then tend to take a hands-off anything-goes approach after that.  Obviously Christian schools can offer a much deeper view and help singles learn to have healthy, deeper relationships counter to the hookup culture and offer a picture of the secure, real relationships that most young people long to have.  Some schools are intensifying and integrating their approaches to address the co-occurring facilitating contribution of alcohol and drugs which characteristically reduce inhibition and dull the awareness of consequences of a hookup.  At some schools there is a definite institutional expectation that is shared by the faculty, staff, and student leaders who are all expected to model sexual integrity and to create a safe social environment. Students sign an honor code and on some campuses, there have been alcohol-free, single sex dorms with visitation hours.  Some college students clearly feel the hurt of their experiences and may need to redefine what it means to be celibate in terms of resetting their standard until they do get married.  Some schools are actively facilitating healthy alternatives to single people who will need to look for alternative ways to deal with their sexual urges.  Some researchers are advocating a kind of hookup “harm reduction” approach much like that used in alcohol and drug treatment, to teach young adults to slow down and to encourage them to take a break from the hook up culture to allow time to reflect on their decisions.

Colleges can definitely be a model for the local church and Christian college ministries and chaplains have their hands full ministering at ground zero.  Understanding someone’s experiences with the hookup culture in college can be a guide that allows young adults to heal from any hurtful experiences.  For more information consider some of the following resources:

Christian Colleges vs Hookup Culture Kimberly Thornbury, Christianity Today, Hermeneutics, December 2014.  (Sampling of different approaches by colleges to the hookup culture)

Hookup Culture is Good for Women and Other Feminist Myths Amy Julia Becker, Christianity Today, Hermeneutics, September 2012.  (A Christian critique on a feminist perspective on hookup culture.)

Loving Jesus and Hooking Up Mary Demuth, Mary Demuth Blog.  3/19/15.  (Blogger calls for sexual purity in the Christian church)

Sex on Campus  The Christian Century, 1/12/12.  (A survey of college chaplains on their approach to hookup culture on their campuses)

True Love and the Hookup Culture  Christian Standard. T.R. Robertson.  2/9/15.  (Summary of some of the research findings from Catholic sociology and religious studies scholar about student attitudes to the hookup culture.)

When ‘Do Unto Others’ Meets Hookup Culture The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, 9/10/14. (A non-Christian critique of the Christian views on sex and includes a thoughtful theoretical letter from a pastor to the incoming freshman class.)

Engineer Still Blames Himself

spaceshuttleThe 30th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on Jan 28th, 1986,  has come and passed with  brief mention in the news. While the technical and human factor reasons for the explosion have been touted to have been analyzed and corrected by NASA in subsequent launches, it is the personal effects on the shuttle rocket engineers that may continue to have lasting psychological effects.

NPR article in 2006 marked the 20th anniversary of the rocket engine engineers who fought to delay the launch. The engineers worked for the Morton Thiokol company, which was the NASA subcontractor that designed and built the rocket engines. The engineers cited their understanding that the cold temperature conditions of the launch predicted the failing of rubber O-rings that were designed to prevent the leaking of burning engine propellant.

The article cited factors frustrating the technical arguments to delay the launch as NASA’s expectations to establish a regular Space Shuttle launching schedule (even during winter conditions), the initial support of but ultimate overruling of the engineer’s report by internal Thiokol managers, the “coercing” of Thiokol by NASA to approve the launch, the expectations of classrooms across the country to receive the first science class taught from space by a science teacher crewmember, and expectations that then President Ronald Reagan was to mention the successful launch during the State of the Union address the same evening. Given these myriad of external human factors, in hindsight, the warnings of the engineers didn’t have much of a chance to be heard.

A NPR article from 2012 marked the death of one of the other Thiokol engineers, Roger Boisjoly, who had tried to stop the launch. The report cites him as observing that he had “… fought like Hell to stop that launch.”and that he had been “talking to the right people, … the people who had the power to stop that launch.” The article goes on to highlight the career trajectory of Boisjoly, who encouraged by his psychotherapist, went on to lecture at different engineering schools to teach about ethical decision making.

A recent NPR follow-up article marking the 30th anniversary of the explosion gives an updated glimpse into the psychological effects of the explosion on one of the engineers who had tried to sound the alarm. The story and interview reveals for the first time, the identity and lingering self-blame of the now 89 year old engineer, Bob Ebeling, who was at the heart of the failed effort to persuade NASA to delay the launching. The article describes his development of deep depression after the incident and his sense in 1986 that he “… could have done more…. should have done more” and now 30 years later, with similar conclusions that he had been inadequate and didn’t argue the data well enough. It appears that Ebeling continues to blame himself by thinking that he was “…one of the mistakes that God made” and wondering why God had “… picked a loser.”

From the brief NPR articles we only read and hear soundbites and a glimpse into the psyche of both men but it is easy to understand why both engineers would have battled with anger, depression, and self-blame after their failed attempts. In his self-condemnations that he “should have done more” Ebeling exhibits typical cognitive hind sight bias after a traumatic event that likely contributes to ongoing depression. Hindsight bias is constructing a particular (negative) accounting of a past incident, when the repercussions of actions and decisions are fully known after the fact but that could not have been fully known at the time that the decisions were made. He may be blaming himself for not having done more since he “should” have known that his failure to convince his Thiokol managers and NASA would be the   reason for the death of all the astronauts. While the link between failed O-rings under cold weather conditions and a fatal explosion had been predicted by the other engineer Boisjoly in company memos months before the explosion, Ebeling may be personalizing his failure to persuade his managers as the direct cause of the deaths without taking into account all the other factors that contributed to the tragedy.

His understandable but terrible self-descriptors of being God’s “mistake” and a “loser” are critical damning perceptions that likely perpetuate his depression unless they are corrected. It is not clear what kind of religious faith he subscribes to, but I hope that through his faith and with some assistance, he will be able to come to terms with and have a more accurate appraisal of his and others’ valiant efforts in the face of overwhelming external factors. Certainly blame and condemnation should be borne by all those in the chain of command who over-ruled the engineers’ warnings and succumbed to the lure of power, pride, financial gain, and fear.

‘Inside Out’ – Perspectives from 3 Christian Psychotherapists

riley profile final email

I and two of my colleagues just wrote a series of articles offering different perspectives on the hit movie from Pixar ‘Inside Out.’  If you haven’t seen the movie, it is definitely worth seeing on many different levels.

Here is a link to download our ebook for Apple IPad or for Kindle

Core Memories by Stephanie Joy Gulch, M.A.
The Important Work and Ministry of Sadness in Our Lives by Sam Leong, Ph.D.
Helping Your Teen Appreciate and Express Anger by Alex Wang, Ph.D.


Iphone Detecting Bipolar Swings

Saleswoman displaying iphone to camera, based on touch-pad technologyBipolar Disorder continues to be difficult to assess and diagnose accurately given that there has not been any recognized blood test or easily sampled biomarker. While there are some iphone apps to help document mood swings, recent small study in Italy has demonstrated how technology may be used to help with monitoring the characteristic swing of moods. The study used a very small sample size of 12 patients over the course of 12 weeks but it illustrates a potential way that technology might be used to track some of the behaviors that are often associated with bipolar mood swings such as hyperactivity and rapid speech that was operationalized as increased iphone use,  Accurate assessment and diagnosis continues to rely on accurate self reports and reports by friends or family members but perhaps technological approaches with new sensors and tracking approaches can help to better monitor and plan treatment.

Police Use Cat to Help Suicidal Man

police and cat We know that pets can improve people’s lives in many ways. Often anxious or depressed people will turn to their pets for emotional support and motivations to go for walks and maintain their health. Sometimes pets can be reasons to continue the fight through a difficult phase of someone’s life or provide social support.  Here is a story of how a cat helped to persuade a man from committing suicide.

New Technology for Aging Workers

Senior businesswoman with eyeglasses working in the officeHere is a fascinating collection of videos of people talking about their experiences being “over 50 and out of work.” It has been shown through many studies that many unemployed seniors often have depression and anxiety as they face an uncertain future. With the aging population, many designers are revising their products for an aging workforce to help keep the elderly productive. Hopefully high tech will continue to turn it’s creative energies to provide both a profitable and valuable service.

Self Blame For Not Having Done More

Man talking to a clone of himself From this interview years later of Juan Romero, the man who had held Robert Kennedy’s head after being shot, we can see one of the lingering effects of trauma. He speaks of his experience as a 17 year old bus boy who was shaking Kennedy’s hand just as he was shot. Juan speaks of his lingering guilt believing that he was partially to blame for the death. This is a kind of hindsight bias that is common in traumatic situations where someone can create self blame, inserting oneself into a traumatic set of events, whose trajectory could only be known after the fact. Therapy can help to unravel this self imposed bind to greater acceptance and self-forgiveness for survivors of trauma.