Friday, May 15, 2009

The interesting but irritating Grant study of life stories

Brooks, surprisingly, reports on an article from this month’s Atlantic Magazine pretty much straight up …

NYT They Had It Made – David Brooks

In the late 1930s, a group of 268 promising young men, including John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, entered Harvard College. By any normal measure, they had it made. They tended to be bright, polished, affluent and ambitious. They had the benefit of the world’s most prestigious university. They had been selected even from among Harvard students as the most well adjusted…

…The study had produced a stream of suggestive correlations. The men were able to cope with problems better as they aged. The ones who suffered from depression by 50 were much more likely to die by 63. The men with close relationships with their siblings were much healthier in old age than those without them.

But it’s the baffling variety of their lives that strikes one the most. It is as if we all contain a multitude of characters and patterns of behavior, and these characters and patterns are bidden by cues we don’t even hear. They take center stage in consciousness and decision-making in ways we can’t even fathom. The man who is careful and meticulous in one stage of life is unrecognizable in another context…

It’s online, so worth a quick look. Or just read Brooks, he got most of it.

What Brooks misses though is the irritating aspect of the study. The study’s owner and interpreter is an unreformed Freudian, which makes him, in technical neuroscience terms, a loon. All of the stories are seen through the lens of Freud’s fact-free models of mind.

Stripped of the interpretation they’d be much more interesting. This is a group, for example, from which we should expect about 3-8 schizophrenics. How did they develop? What about those who didn’t meet the formal criteria for a late onset degenerative disorder of cognition, but showed some schizotypal features? Of those who did develop psychotic disorders, how many recovered? The last, incidentally, was an interest of one the mid-course managers of the study.

I hope someone gets to do that someday.

Incidentally, John Kennedy’s file will be available in 2040. If you’re under 30 now that will come much sooner than you can imagine.

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