Thursday, December 20, 2012

InsideOut Interview: Daniel Goleman

DANIEL GOLEMAN On Love and Intelligence
by Owen Lipstein

Daniel Goleman, an internationally renowned psychologist best known for popularizing cutting-edge neuroscience on emotional and social intelligence, is one of our heroes. For many years he wrote for The New York Times Science section, and since 1995 — when his first book, "Emotional Intelligence," was published and sold 5 million copies (!) — he has been a full-time writer and serious walk-the-talker, studying his own mind in meditation.
INSIDEOUT: You are a scientist who has also published hugely influential, bestselling books. Tell us how that happened for you.

DAN GOLEMAN: Back in the '70s when [former editor] George Harris recruited me to be a psychologist on the staff of Psychology Today (which then was a major magazine), it was a radical act to commit to science journalism. Today that is an established field, quite respectable. Back then, my former colleagues — I had just left a visiting professorship at Harvard to take this job — were, to be frank, pretty scornful about my wasting what could be a potentially promising academic career to join the popular press. 

At the same time, psychology was just on the cusp of what is now a decade-long escalation in the level of science behind psychological theory. What has been exciting for me is that my timing was very good, in that I was able to record this amazing transition and transformation of the field, and get paid for that. I've always loved writing, so this has been a great treat for me. 

IO: You are also sort of unusual in that you have always been interested in the East and the West, and the connection between mind and body. It's come in and out of vogue, as we all know, but tell us about then, and tell us about now. 

DG: Another early career risk I took was to do my doctoral dissertation at Harvard on meditation as an antidote to stress. And that sounds ho-hum today, but it was kind of a freaky idea for people in my field back then — that you could do something with your mind that would have a measurable effect on the body.
What seemed like a risky idea back then is now standard science, so I've also been a chronicler of the rise of what you could call the mind-body connection — the steady drumbeat of scientific research that establishes more and more firmly the ways in which mind and body interact and are interlocked. Today the old split between the body's here and the mind's there is pretty much a thing of the past, because we understand that the way the brain works interweaves biology with our thoughts and our feelings, and it's an artificial separation.

Probably the most influential person on the practice side has been a guy that I knew way back in graduate school, someone named John Kabat-Zinn. When I went off to Psychology Today, he ensconced himself in the basement of a building at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, where he said to the different medical areas: "Send me the patients you can't help anymore," and he taught them mindfulness, [a type of] meditation that was adapted for a medical setting. 

What happened was that people didn't get cured, but they were able to live with chronic suffering and pain much, much better. Now it has spread to hospitals around the world. Tens of thousands of people are doing it, and science is showing that it's extraordinarily beneficial. 

IO: It seems as if you took the less logically correct course in your career, but your books have been so commercially successful. Do you find that amusing, surprising, counterintuitive? 

DG: Well, it was just sheer luck, frankly. I just followed Joseph Campbell's famous advice to follow your passion, long before I ever heard those words. It just made sense to me, and as it turned out — it paid off in that other people were, it seems, extremely interested in the same thing. So I've been lucky that by following my nose, I've been able to make a living and share insights with a very large audience. 

IO: If someone were to write the history of what's been happening these last 25 or 30 years, what do you think some of the bigger stories would be? 

DG: I've been covering the brain and behavioral sciences, so within my field, the big transformation is the transformation of psychology as a stand-alone discipline to a sub-discipline of biology. The more we understand about the brain, the more psychological theory and practice becomes grounded in neuroscience and has a much stronger scientific base. In terms of the little corner of history that I've followed — I think that's the big transition. 

IO: Do you find that having access to, and thinking about, these things makes you a better liver of your own life? 

DG: I think it's inspired me to be a more serious meditation practitioner over the years. I’m not that serious. I think I could do a lot better, and I hope to, in terms of putting time aside. 

IO: What about the advent of medication? When somebody finds the remnants of our civilization 4,000 years from now and we've all disappeared, is that going to be a big discovery — that we created some of these amazing drugs that could actually affect behavior, and mood, and all of that? 

DG: I think that's another part of the story. I haven't been much involved in that. I think what is more interesting to me is that we are finding natural interventions. The problem with drugs in the brain is that the brain is a complex system, and drugs are not, and nature conserves molecules and likes to use the same molecules for many different jobs. So you can take an SSRI [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, a class of antidepressants], which alters your levels of serotonin in the brain, but you have to understand that 95 percent of serotonin receptors are in the gut, not in the brain.

The inelegant thing about medicines so far has been side effects, which are inevitable. The thing I love is finding natural alternatives such as meditation, which, it seems, will accomplish much of what anti-anxiety and antidepressants do for many people. I’m not really part of the story on the drug events. I have a kind of different attitude. 

IO: What is a day in your life like these days? 

DG: I don't have a day job. I'm a writer. I am always writing some book or other. Usually what will happen is that I will get up, my wife and I will make breakfast together — she makes a really excellent pot of chai, and I make a very healthy omelet — and then we both meditate, and then we both go off and write. She's a psychologist and writer too. She wrote a wonderful book called "Emotional Alchemy," which combines meditation and therapy. She's working on another book now, and I am tinkering with some ideas. That takes me to the afternoon. I try not to look at e-mail or answer the phone until the afternoon. 

IO: How do you explain the popular success of a book like "Emotional Intelligence"? 

DG: I didn't expect that it would be as successful as it was, for one thing. I remember getting another proposal ready to send to publishers before it was published, just in case it bombed, because I had a son about to go to college and I needed tuition money. I was hedging my bets on that one.

I think that “Emotional Intelligence" came along at a time when people were looking for a hopeful insight into emotional life. Basically what I did was an overview of new findings that explained, in more concrete terms, why we get into many of the emotional predicaments we do, and what causes them, and how to get out of them. I think it was such a hopeful book. For whatever reason, it's in 30 languages now. It's a worldwide phenomenon. It seemed to have spoken to some pretty universal human need of our time. 

IO: Do you think that as a culture and as a world, we are more receptive, more conscious, more emotionally sophisticated, more ready for accepting books that deal with this area? 

DG: It may be that we're more desperate, that life today is more stressful than ever, that we are less rooted, that we have less community, that we are more distant from our loved ones, that people are more isolated than in the past. In other words, it may be that there is more pain of an emotional sort than has been the case in much of human history. 

IO: Have we learned anything lately? Is there any notable piece of research that has caught your eye or your imagination, that surprised you, startled you, or was something that you didn't know? 

DG: In my most recent book, “Social Intelligence," there is a section on new research on love, and one of the things that helped things fall into place for me was to understand that there are three different brain systems involved in love. One is caring for people you spontaneously want to take care of in your life, and [for whom] you feel some responsibility. The second is attachment. These are the people you miss if they are not there, people that you would feel abandoned by if they weren't in your life. The third is good old sex and romance.

It turns out that the most vibrant relationships have all three going at full throttle. That was a helpful insight to me.