As the semester begins, I know I will be busy with teaching, grading, and writing, so in addition to trying to post brief articles here, I will be doing Snapchat videos about psych facts, recent research, and maybe even some psych insights into pop culture. Follow me on Snapchat at doctorbalzer or use the snap code below!
As this blog finds its voice, I am starting to see it becoming a combination of psychology news, editorial, and a look into other parts of this psych professor’s life. As a fan of pop-culture with an inability to take off the psychological science lenses through which I have learned to see the world, pop-culture, especially TV and movies, is both a refuge for my brain as well as fertile ground for new questions, insights, and opinions. One of my research interests is how mental illness is portrayed in popular culture, both good and bad, but I also find myself pausing shows frequently, to the chagrin of my viewing partners, to ponder why a show is popular, what part of the current American psyche it is speaking to or from, and why the showrunners are making the choices that they are.
With this in mind, I will occasionally share a bit about what I am listening to, watching, or reading, and sometimes go into more detail about why I think it is important, interesting, or just a recommendation from me to anyone, psychologist, psychology student, or otherwise who is looking for something new to enjoy/overthink.
So for now, just a few recommendations. Some of these were binge-watched already, some are ongoing, and some are current obsessions. This is not an exhaustive list by far and will be added to, and expanded upon, in the future. Some will get their own blog post(s) when the time feels right.
Sense8 This show came out of nowhere and took over my life for its first season. I was not the only one to be delightfully surprised by this gem and it became so popular that public outcry brought it back, at least temporarily (see photo, above). The characters are well-developed, and remind me of one idea regarding Dissociative Identity Disorder (a.k.a. DID, or Multiple Personality Disorder) that encourages the identities to be seen as parts of a whole personality. We all have parts of ourselves better suited to certain situations, or that seem to come out more prominently at certain times, and this sci-fi-esque take on the idea has truly different but connected individuals each contributing their skills and traits for the betterment of the whole. I think of it like how we each have the child-like part of ourselves, the passionate part, the altruistic part, the aggressive part, etc. But for those of us without DID (and without a “cluster” as in Sense8), we recognize that these are all part of our own unique and shifting self. Add to all of this the incredibly natural LGBTQ+ representation and you have something irresistible to me.
Legion I maintain that this is the best series in the Marvel TV universe. It is twisted, confusing, visually stunning, and will absolutely get its own series of posts in the near future.
The Handmaid’s Tale This one is fairly obvious and also likely to get it’s own series of posts.
GLOW Probably less obvious, but the themes of good vs. bad, masculinity and femininity, and the throwback to the 80s make this one well worth the time. And possibly a post once I finish watching the second season!
The Good Place The smartest sit-com on TV. Don’t @ me.
RuPaul’s Drag Race This one may have sparked a new direction for my research, as well as nights (and a Sunday morning) out enjoying the art of drag. There is a lot to unpack with this phenomenon happening at this particular time, but I fear much of it may be sociological and therefore outside my area of expertise. That won’t stop me from both enjoying the show and starting a reading list for a possible study or manuscript…
So that is just a start. Stay tuned for more pop-culture posts and recommendations from this pop-culture-obsessed psych prof!
As a psychology student in the late 1990s, a large part of our cognitive and developmental courses was about language. The past few decades had seen a great deal of research into and development of new theories of language development, and the rise of the best-known name in the field of linguistics, Noam Chomsky.
In addition to reading about a chimp named Kanzi, we all got to know the gorilla named Koko. Being that it was a liberal arts education, and critical thinking was embedded in every topic covered, the professors presented both sides of a contentious debate that the lay public was unlikely to encounter. We learned about Penny Patterson, who worked with Koko, and her deeply held belief, formed through years of working with Koko, that the gorilla had learned to sign, and was doing so to communicate the same way we as humans do. That she was going beyond simply forming shapes with her hands to view them as true words and a way to express real thoughts and emotions. On the other side of the debate we have scientists like Herbert Terrace, who holds that based on the principles of behavioral psychology, chimps and gorillas are using signs as a simple behavior performed for the sole purpose of obtaining a reward, like food or attention.
As we cannot read the minds of these animals, we have to base our theories on the evidence in front of us. Great minds on both sides of the question point to behaviors that they believe support their case, always, as we know, through the lens of what they expect to see, or long to see. So, for now, I will simply mourn the loss of an individual who both answered old and sparked new questions about what it means to communicate and what it means to be human, whether she knew it or not. She passed away on June 19, 2018, at the age of 46. Rest in peace, Koko.
(As promised in my last post)
In middle school, I wanted to be a marine biologist. In high school, I wanted to be a writer, English teacher, and drama club director. But I had near-debilitating social anxiety disorder, and the thought of standing in front of a class of teens and talking for 40 minutes threw me into panic. I was near the top of my class and really good at biology (and a huge fan of ER, the television show), so as I entered college, my 18-year-old self thought the only way to success, pride, and money was to become a medical doctor.
I entered college with an exploratory major, but by the end of my first semester had taken Introduction to Psychology and decided that Psychology was the perfect major for a pre-med. Useful to a future physician, interesting enough to study for 4 years, and would set me apart from the army of biology majors I’d be fighting for a spot in medical school. Taking Behavioral Neuroscience sealed the deal, as I realized that the most complex and fascinating thing in the universe is the human brain and I was hungry to know more about it.
I faltered as I took Organic Chemistry. Not for the usual reason (it is known as the class that weeds out those who are not cut out to be doctors, and I was doing very well with the material), but because I was starting to wonder if I didn’t really want to be a physician. Was a PhD in Clinical Psychology a better route for someone loathe to touch people than the road that would take me through doing physical exams and surgery just so I could come out on the other side and do psychotherapy? I went to the Abnormal Psychology professor for guidance. He had a PhD in Clinical Psych and wore the classic turtle neck under tweed jacket with elbow pads that are associated with the stereotypical professor. He projected immediately and told me that as a star student I wouldn’t be satisfied as a psychologist. I needed to be a psychiatrist, the one in charge, the one with the most challenging “cases”. I accepted this and restarted the pre-med program. This would not be the last time I doubted the path I had chosen and then ignored my gut to doggedly carry on.
So, I entered medical school with the intent to become a psychiatrist. Anatomy was creepy but cool, although I smelled like formaldehyde 24/7. I got a work study assignment in forensic pathology, assisting with research and autopsies at the county medical examiner’s office. I toyed with the idea of becoming a medical examiner myself. There was something morbidly exciting about watching the news to find out what/who we would be seeing on the autopsy table that day, and about telling people what I was doing that summer (never breaking confidentiality, of course) and seeing the looks on their faces. It fit with my perception of myself as different, a little goth, emotionally intelligent but not prey to the fears and compunctions about death of “normal” people. Then I assisted on the autopsy of a child who had drowned, his body recovered in the water a few days later. The smell was distinctively awful, a combination of rot and fish. A week later I tried to eat shrimp and within minutes I was throwing up, crying on the bathroom floor about that lost life, about his body, his family, his erased future. And I knew in that moment that I was NOT immune to emotion, nor was I able to compartmentalize the way the women I worked with had to, and that every child on the table would break me a little more, and I went back to pursuing psychiatry.
I labored through my course on physical examination while excelling in the more academic work. This caused another moment of “why am I doing this?”, but by now I was 2 years’ worth of time and money in and to leave would be to FAIL. My greatest fear was always failure, so I was stuck. I made it through my clinical years, enjoying the less tactile/manual rotations like psychiatry and radiology, and matched at my own institution for residency. I graduated from medical school 8 1/2 months pregnant with my first child. I was now Dr. Carolyn Roper Balzer.
I had to start my residency when my daughter was only a few weeks old. This started my training off on the wrong foot, as I longed to be home with her, not doing 26-hour calls covering 4 hospitals. I had good moments, like when I really got through to a patient or was able to describe complex diagnoses and treatments to patients and families in ways my superiors couldn’t or just didn’t. But more and more I noticed that psychiatry was a cycle of evaluate, medicate, adjust medication, remedicate when the patient stopped taking their pills, repeat. Therapy was what the psychologists and social workers we referred patients to did. We saw them when they were suicidal, aggressive, noncompliant, or simply unmedicated. I have to believe that some psychiatrists DO get to do more psychotherapy than prescribing, and I know intimately how important medication can be for some people suffering with some mental disorders, but I was disillusioned, exhausted, and anxious. After 2 years of residency, with just 2 years left before I could become licensed to practice, I left.
For my own sanity, I took a few years to have my family. Two more babies and 4 years later, the lack of a six-figure salary became too much. I started looking for an alternative career. People asked why I couldn’t just become a therapist. After all, I had done 4 years of medical school and 2 years of psychiatric training. That was at least as good as a masters degree. But they didn’t realize that not only did I no longer want to do that, training and licensing don’t work that way. So, I sold Avon. Seriously. I became an Avon lady with an M.D.
Then I saw an ad for an adjunct professor of psychology at a local community college. I thought it made no sense to apply. First, remember my social anxiety? But I had been treating that and had made huge strides. Second, don’t you need a PhD to teach? But my mom, ever my greatest supporter, convinced me to go for it. The professor of abnormal psychology at the time, the class I would be taking over, advocated for me despite the shortcoming of never having done a dissertation, and I started teaching.
I fell in love with it! Maybe it is because I love being the expert in the room, talking about things I love, getting others to love them too. Now I feel like this is where I was meant to be. I have so many stories from my varied experience to share with my students. I took a full-time position as Assistant Professor, non-tenure track, at a small local 4-year college, and I teach everything from Intro Psych to Developmental Psychopathology, Physiological Psychology, and of course, Abnormal. I only hope they will let me continue to do this for a very long time.
Early in an academic career, especially when you have entered one through a back door (more on that in a post to come), it is important to determine a research direction. The importance of scholarly work is made clear to those of us in the non-tenure track or early tenure track position. And as academics, we likely chose this career direction BECAUSE we want to continue lifelong study, to know more about the things that ignite our passion.
I’ve been floundering in this pursuit, however. Maybe it is the unconventional, non-research background I bring. Maybe it is the other responsibilities and concerns of a teaching professor. Either way, the time has come to point myself in a particular direction and take the first step. Serendipitously, a fellow professor at my institution has been making “Mind Maps” and this intrigued me. So last night, I set out to make a mind map of possible academic pursuits, and the answer came more quickly and more clearly than I was expecting.
I have shared my simple mind map below. What I noticed as I began was that many of my previous experiences have had a few common threads running through them. First, an interest in mental illness and a knowledge base that has come from a psychiatry residency. Second, a fascination with and a concern about how mental illness is portrayed in the media, from TV to music, from movies to the news. As an undergrad at Ithaca College, my research was in the media and psychology lab. Third, a desire to help others understand mental illness, and to dispel myths and stereotypes about the mentally ill. And with that, it all became clear.
So now begins a dive into the existing literature regarding the portrayal of mental illness in the media and the impact on public perception of the mentally ill. From schizophrenia and Antisocial Personality Disorder, to gender dysphoria and suicide. Stay tuned!
I’m a psychology professor, but I started out a medical student and then a psychiatry resident. What I have enjoyed most in both roles, what has given me chills whenever I have done it well, has been when I’ve been able to describe a complex topic to someone who has just a little background in medicine or psychology, or maybe none at all, and I can see the understanding, the gaining of knowledge, the learning of something they thought was inaccessible. Especially when that information has the ability to make their lives better, more interesting, or healthier. I am a firm believer that science is not some ivory tower enterprise, but something everyone can and should use. And the sciences that are my greatest passion are behavioral neuroscience and psychopathology. The meeting places between scientific experimentation and every day life in the environment of the brain: the most complex and exciting thing in the universe, and happily, something we all own.