Does Cognitive Therapy Work?

Cognitive therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which the therapist tries to teach the patient to think more rationally. In mild to moderate cases of depression, cognitive therapy seems to work as well as antidepressant medication. Yet like any other form of psychotherapy, cognitive therapy seems to be less effective for people with more serious mental illnesses. These findings would come as no surprise to an ancient Greek or Roman physician. Cognitive therapy is really just coaching in logical thinking. Ancient Greeks and Roman philosophers believed that logical thinking is an art that can be cultivated. However, they also recognized that some people have medical problems that make it difficult or impossible to think logically. In Roman law, a person would not be held legally responsible for an act that was committed when he was not in control of his mind (non compos mentis).

Cognitive therapy seems to be useful for people with mild to moderate mental illnesses. I suspect that it may also be beneficial for people who are not regarded as mentally ill. Cognitive therapy is actually a form of remedial education (i.e., it teaches people things that they should already have learned). Cognitive therapy teaches some of the skills in logical thinking that should have been taught in junior high and high school. I suspect that cognitive therapy could become even more effective if it involved a more systematic approach to teaching logic.

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What the Dog “Saint” Teaches Us About Plausible Deniability and Child Murder

From the Middle Ages up to the 1930s, many Catholics revered a dog named Guinefort as a saint who protected infants. Parents would leave a sickly baby overnight at the shrine of “Saint” Guinefort. As a result, the baby usually died of exposure. Of course, some babies did not die so easily. As a result, many parents believed that evil spirits had stolen their baby, leaving an evil changeling in its place. These parents might then go to the dog’s shrine to perform dangerous rituals on the changeling, to persuade the evil spirits to return their healthy child. As a result, the “changeling” usually died. The purpose of these rituals was for parents to rid themselves of a burdensome child, but in a way that would absolve them of guilt and that would not cause them to lose social standing.

Modern-day people might be shocked at such barbaric superstitions. Yet these practices reflect a sense of morality. The parents, who were often on the edge of starvation themselves, wanted to rid themselves of a burdensome child whom nobody else wanted. Even today, many people in India and China kill their infant daughters, or allow them to starve to death, because it is uneconomical to rear daughters. If a child died during a religious ritual, the death was God’s will. The parents can then deny that they were to blame.

In the Middle Ages, there were no effective contraceptives. Nor was there a welfare state to provide healthcare and other kinds of support to the parents of sick children. Yet the parents did not want to bear the guilt and shame of killing their child or allowing their child to die of neglect. Instead, they performed a ritual that felt as if they were doing something to help the child. Today, parents can achieve the same effect by choosing faith healing instead of modern medicine for a sick child who has become too much for them to bear.

Saint” Guinefort was a greyhound. His life story is a variation on the classic tale of the Brahmin and the Mongoose. This story is classified as type 178A in the Aarne-Thompson system of classifying folktales. The gist of the story is that someone rashly killed a faithful animal after jumping to the false conclusion that the animal had killed a child, when the animal had actually protected the child by killing a venomous snake. In ancient India, the faithful animal was a mongoose. In the European versions of the tale, the faithful animal is usually a hound. “Saint” Guinefort supposedly killed a snake that was threatening a baby. Guinefort was then supposedly killed by his owner, a knight who lived in a castle near Lyon, in France. Overcome by remorse, the knight then buried Guinefort and set up a shrine on his grave.

In ancient Greece and Rome, it was accepted practice for unhealthy or simply unwanted babies to be left outdoors somewhere, to freeze or starve to death or to be eaten by wild animals. This practice was called exposure. In Italy, it gave rise to the surname Esposito, which meant “exposed one.” This surname was given to abandoned children whose parentage was unknown. The French equivalent is Trouvé, which means “found.”

The Roman Catholic Church disapproved of nonhuman “saints” and actively suppressed the cult of “Saint” Guinefort. Yet it created institutions that serve the same deadly purpose as the dog-saint’s shrine. The Church created foundling homes, which were institutions that offered a safe and often anonymous way for a parent to drop off an unwanted infant. Some of these institutions had a “foundling wheel,” which was a hatch where people could drop off an infant anonymously. Yet the foundling homes were not a safe haven for the unwanted babies. In some of these institutions, 80% or even 100% of the children died, sometimes as a result of simple starvation. In other words, the Church did not want you to allow your baby to die of neglect at a pagan shrine. Instead, it wanted you to give your child to the Church, so the nuns could allow your child to die of neglect. Many of these dead children were even denied a Christian burial.

The foundling homes actually ended up causing the birth of even more unwanted babies. When a woman gave up her newborn, she stopped breast-feeding. As a result, she quickly became fertile again. The result was often yet another unwanted child.

To stop this slaughter of the innocents, you must improve women’s rights, such as by eliminating the dowry system in India. As long as people view daughters as a burden, rather than a blessing, the lives of baby girls will be in danger. You must also give poor women access to effective birth control. Starting in 2009, the state-run Colorado Family Planning Initiative began making some highly effective but expensive contraceptives (IUDs and implantable birth control) available for free or for a low cost. As a result, births to teen mothers in Colorado dropped by 40%, and the number of abortions in Colorado dropped by 35%. Second, you must ensure that families have access to healthcare. Ideally, healthcare should be provided free at the point of service to the patient, as it has been in Britain since 1948. Third, you must ensure that your state has an effective system of child protection. When a family decides to allow a burdensome sickly child to die of neglect disguised as faith healing, the state can take over medical guardianship of the child or even take the burdensome child off the family’s hands.

Are You a Vampire Slayer or a Vengeance Demon?

On the surface, Joss Whedon’s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a satire of horror movies. Vampire movies typically show pretty young women, and especially dumb blondes, as helpless victims who must rely on other people to save them. In contrast, Buffy (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) was a pretty and smart blond teenage girl who saved the world, a lot. Like many other satires, the series was intended as meaningful entertainment. It provides useful lessons in how to grow up, how to manage anger, and how to atone for your sins. In the show, Buffy literally slew demons. Yet those demons were also metaphors for the kinds of problems that each of us must solve as we grow up. Nevertheless, there was one important demon whom Buffy was reluctant to slay: a vengeance demon named Anyanka. (Emma Caulfield did such a brilliant job in her role as Anyanka that she became a series regular.)

The contrast between Buffy and Anyanka is a sly way of teaching people the proper use of anger. A vampire slayer, such as Buffy, needs to harness her anger to give her the strength she needs for slaying demons, to protect the powerless from suffering and untimely death. In contrast, a vengeance demon, such as Anyanka, inflicts suffering and untimely death on someone who has made a powerless person angry. Vengeance is a bad thing because it increases the amount of suffering in the world. In the Buffyverse, vengeance fantasies are a vice of the weak and immature, and vengeance is something that pleases only the lower beings.

Vengeance demons are personifications of wrath, which stems from anger. Anger is the emotion that you feel when someone or something is preventing you from getting what you want. Anger gives you the energy to struggle to overcome obstacles. Uncontrolled anger can lead to wrath. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the neutral act of anger becomes the sin of wrath when the anger is directed against an innocent person, when the anger is unduly strong or long-lasting, or when the angry person wants to inflict excessive punishment.

If you have obstacles that you cannot overcome, your anger may become chronic. Often, if you are struggling against a more powerful person, that more powerful person will usually win. Because you lack the power to prevail against that person, you may remain angry with him or her for a long time. That chronic anger directed at a more powerful person is called resentment. When people are consumed with resentment, they may fantasize about harming the powerful person who is thwarting their plans. Thus, resentment is a symptom of weakness.

In the Buffyverse, vengeance demons are resentful people who are drawn to other resentful people. Anyanka sought out women who were angry at their unfaithful boyfriends and husbands. (Viewers eventually learn that Anyanka’s heart was broken by her unfaithful lover.) Another vengeance demon, Halfrek, sought out children who were angry at their neglectful parents. (As Anyanka explains, Halfrek has “daddy issues.”) If a vengeance demon succeeds in getting a resentful person to express an evil fantasy in the form of a wish, the vengeance demon grants the wish. As a result, the amount of suffering in the world increases. Even the resentful person is horrified by the results.

To succeed in slaying her demons, Buffy needs her anger. Anger strengthens her in her nightly combat against the forces of darkness, which serve as metaphors for the problems that adults must face. Yet Buffy must not be overwhelmed by her anger. A vampire slayer is supposed to slay demons. However, she must not squander her energy by beating the demons into a pulp first. As Buffy’s “watcher” Rupert Giles explained, a slayer must efficiently plunge her stake into each vampire’s heart and then move on to the next. Also, Buffy is a slayer, not a killer. Slayer power is to be used only against demons, never against human beings. That is why Buffy never seeks vengeance against another human being, unless she has unwittingly been reduced to an ape-like “Cave-Buffy” (with bad hair!) by a villain’s evil magic. Vengeance fantasies are for the weak and primitive. Buffy, as a true hero, cannot exact vengeance unless her moral sense has been disabled.

To teach us that the desire for vengeance is understandable but unwise, Joss Whedon makes his vengeance demons comical. Buffy’s watcher, who serves as a metaphor for the intellect, manages to transform Anyanka from a powerful vengeance demon into a petulant, socially clumsy, narcissistic teenage girl. As Anyanka explained it, “For a thousand years I wielded the powers of The Wish. I brought ruin to the heads of unfaithful men. I brought forth destruction and chaos for the pleasure of the lower beings. I was feared and worshipped across the mortal globe. And now I’m stuck at Sunnydale High. Mortal. Child. And I’m flunking math.” In the vengeance demon’s fantasies, her acts of vengeance cause others to fear and worship her. However, an application of the intellect reveals that she is pitiful because she lacks the skills for solving her problems. Anyanka does not recognize her immaturity. In her mind, she is an old soul—a thousand years old. Yet in the real world, she is a child—not even old enough to buy beer in California.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff series Angel, Joss Whedon used supernatural motifs as metaphors for moral concepts. Demons represent the animalistic or at least uncivilized aspects of human nature. For example, a werewolf is a human being who is periodically overwhelmed by the animal side of his or her nature. Likewise, the soul represents the conscience. Before a person can become a vampire, their soul must leave their body. Because vampires have no soul (i.e., no conscience), they can steal and torture and kill without remorse. If a vampire’s soul were somehow restored, the vampire would become disabled by feelings of guilt and remorse.

Guilt is the feeling that one has wronged someone. Remorse is anger at oneself for having wronged someone. Once a vampire regains his soul, he starts working on his redemption. To redeem something means to make it acceptable. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, a vampire-with-a-soul is used as a metaphor for a recovering alcoholic. Like an ensouled vampire, recovering alcoholics must struggle against the temptation to resume drinking. Recovering alcoholics must also work on repairing the relationships that they have damaged in their quest for self-gratification.

Do vengeance demons have souls? Fans are divided on that question, which is never explicitly addressed in the series. My guess is that vengeance demons do have a soul, but that their soul has been stunted and distorted by resentment. Vengeance demons feel that they are motivated by a sense of right and wrong. (Halfrek prefers to be called a “justice demon.”) Yet vengeance demons lack a true understanding of the difference between right and wrong. Vengeance demons never right wrongs. Instead, they merely add more suffering to the world. Vengeance demons turn the familiar world into a hell dimension.

After Anyanka was turned back into a human being, Buffy saw no need to slay her. Buffy even allowed Anyanka to become part of her inner circle of friends (the Scooby Gang). As Anyanka become increasingly human, she even proves her worth in the fight against evil. Anyanka has poor skills when it comes to interacting with normal human beings. As we eventually see, this is the problem that caused the initial resentment that led to her becoming a vengeance demon. Nevertheless, Anya has some skills in magic and a lot of useful knowledge about demons and hell dimensions. Anya often helps Buffy by using magic or by providing important pieces of information at just the right time. Nevertheless, Buffy makes it clear that if Anyanka gets back into the vengeance game, Buffy will have to slay her.

In the Buffyverse, immortality serves as a metaphor for the failure to grow up. Vampires do not age. Neither do vengeance demons. Anyanka is a thousand years old. Halfrek is at least a hundred and fifty years old. The fact that these characters remain unchanged as time passes is a metaphorical representation of their arrested emotional, moral, and social development. Vengeance demons are like spoiled children who feel that their anger gives them license to hurt others. In contrast, Buffy is so busy saving the world that she has no time to nurse petty grievances. Thus, Buffy the Vampire Slayer poses a vital question: Are you a vengeance demon or a vampire slayer? Are you an inept, childish person who would like to use your anger as an excuse to add to the world’s suffering? Or are you a hero who uses your anger constructively in your selfless mission to save the world?

Photo by RavenU