Talking GaGa

I just got back from a trip to Paris, visiting the various sites in search of inspiration. There is so much good material in a city steeped in history, culture, religion and gargoyles.

It was in Notre Dame Cathedral where I was intrigued by a drop-in confessional in practice. Behind the glass wall, was some unknown believer opening their heart to the resident priest. I could not resist an illicit photograph. Apparently they were talking to Father GaGa! Ok a cheap jibe at a Catholic ritual but you must admit, it is pretty funny.

Confession is supposedly good for the soul. But if you don’t have a soul then it is good for the mind. Guilt can be a corrosive mental state and so I expect that much of the benefit of confession must be the relief of “getting it off one’s chest.”

 This is because intrusive thoughts can be surprisingly difficult to avoid and in attempting to do so can use up so much mental effort and resources. The more one tries to ignore or forget a thought the harder it becomes. Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner describes this in his white bear studies. In these experiments participants were asked to ignore the image of a great white bear. The trouble is that once you have been told not to think about something, there is a paradoxical increase in the strength of the idea such that it soon becomes an overwhelming obsessive thought. These automatic thoughts are the sorts of ideas that seem to have a life of their own.

If you are immature, brain-damaged or have an anxious personality then you are likely to suffer from intrusive thoughts. The character of Basil Fawlty was arguably deficient on all three counts and hence his hilarious “don’t mention the war” sketch. If you have not seen this, then prepare to wet your pants as you watch this (and major apologies to all my German friends).

But back to guilt and confession. A cynic might argue that religion first makes us suffer from guilt and then provides the antidote through ritual. Where do the rest of us non-believers confess or do we need to?

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Talking GaGa

  1. Katie

    I am personally all for confession (rather, being honest), but completely disagree with guilt. Maybe it’s being an ‘artist’, but I’m not ashamed of anything I do. I get embarrassed, but only for my family/friends’ sakes.

    Isn’t the power play that religion employs using guilt more generally social – most married couples I know enforce both guilt and confession with their partners. A lot of parents guilt their children into leading the lives they wish for them. Is it just nasty old posessiveness?

    btw – I get a stupid extra kick by the way his head bandage has a wonky bit at the top. Out of all the brilliant comedy in this scene, it’s the little wobbly bit that gets me.

  2. Perhaps I am being unkind, but I have thought for a while that psychoanalysis worked on much the same basis as the confessional. I seem to have a vague memory of hearing about studies that showed very similar effects from talking with a psychoanalyst as opposed to a friend. No recollection of comparisons with going to confession.

  3. As a keeper of some pretty dark secrets I am well acquainted with intrusive thinking.

    My therapist explained to me that they were symptomatic of Secondary Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It would appear SPTSD appears regularly in those in helping professions. Hearing about other people’s horrible trauma’s seriously damages the psyche of the listener, thereby causing them to exhibit signs of having undergone the trauma themselves. Clearly they are not usually as traumatized, but the intrusive thinking, anxiety, and depression that follows a trauma also follows those who help the victim deal with the trauma.

    I represented abused kids, so the images, phrases, and stories I was trying to block out were pretty horrific. To top that off, there is no confessional in my quasi religion of choice, so therapy really was my only alternative. Especially as I am literally legally prevented from sharing these secrets with anyone other than my client, or my therapist.

    I love that sketch btw. Thanks for it!

  4. brucehood

    Scylla… that’s fascinating and I think sounds entirely likely. In fact, I will investigate this further as I know another who also suffers from a similar situation. I am also just about to begin some work on how adults suppress thoughts.

    Thanks for this…. I knew there was a good reason for writing a blog.

  5. Susan

    Interesting comments about intrusive thoughts and inability to discuss them. There must be a number of professions where being bound by confidentiality means it is really difficult to discuss an issue and get it off one’s chest eg. lawyers, doctors, secret agents!!! Are they more inclined to be anxious and suffer stress because of this or do these professions attract people who find it difficult to talk openly about private issues and therefore make good confidential lawyers etc? I suppose it is made much worse by being in these professions where the ability to cope under pressure is seen as a requirement to advance and admission of stress a failing.

  6. brucehood

    I am terrible at keeping secrets and gossip like hell. I assumed it was just my extroversion (= lack of inhibition). But I wonder if that would also make me (paradoxically) less empathetic. I expect the issue is much more complicated than this but thanks for the comments. They certainly have me thinking.

  7. Pingback: Don’t Mention the War! « Bruce M. Hood

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