C. Keith Conners
University of Chicago, 1953, B.A., Liberal Arts
Oxford University, 1955, M.A., Philosophy, Psychology & Physiology
Stanford University, 1956
Harvard University, 1960, Ph.D., Clinical Psychology
Keith Conners was born and raised in Utah with an older sister and a twin sister. He spent his first year in school in a one-room schoolhouse in Ophir, Utah. After his appendix ruptured, his family moved to Salt Lake City to obtain better medical treatment. At 15, he skipped most of high school and went to study in Chicago. He became a clinical psychologist and founded the ADHD program at Duke University. He has done a number of studies of how foods affect attention in children, including writing a book called Feeding the Brain. Although he is retired, he occasionally lectures and consults. He also spends his time, writing, reading, and painting oil and watercolors. He credits the Rhodes experience for pointing him to psychology as his profession, as well as providing him with peak experiences that have lasted a lifetime.
Q. I read that you were born in Bingham, Utah. At what age did you move to Salt Lake City?
From Bingham, I moved to a little mountain village called Ophir. Ophir in the Bible was the place where King Solomon’s mines were supposedly located. It was a small town that served a large mining operation nearby called The Hidden Treasure. I lived in this canyon town until I was five. I still regard that experience as “a hidden treasure” in my growing up.
It was there that I did my first “psychotherapy” at the age of four. There was a lady in her late 80s named Mrs. Howerth, who lived down the road. On the way to work, my dad walked past her house. He had to climb over a mountain about five miles to where they were mining. He did that every day and learned that Mrs. Howerth who lived on his was was there with nobody to take care of her.
He suggested to me that it would be nice if I would take her a pot of soup. So I lugged a pot of soup to her little house where she had chickens, and introduced myself. She was gracious and charming, and sat in one small room with the rest of the house closed off. I sat in a chair and she started talking with me. She was very glad to have company and liked to talk about her life. She would have been one of the original pioneers in that part of the country before Utah was a state. She had a husband who had long since passed away, and there was a portrait of him that sat behind her. He was in a cowboy hat and had a red beard. She told a lot of really interesting stories about their pioneer days. I would sit there for hours listening to her tell these stories. A day or two later, I would come back and bring her some more food, or groceries, or just to listen to her stories. That was how I learned to sit still and listen for a long time to people’s life stories. It is one of my fondest memories, not only because of the beauty of the surroundings, but also because of the quiet harmony with adults who allowed us to explore freely while still feeling safe wandering through the valley unattended most of the time.
I lived there until I had a ruptured appendix, when they rushed me to a hospital in Salt Lake City. I had contracted peritonitis and in those days with no antibiotics, it was a fairly serious event. Since there was no hospital, or medical care near the canyon, we moved to Salt Lake in 1939. I remember that time fairly vividly. When I was getting treatments for peritonitis, I remember seeing headlines in the newspaper that Hitler invaded Poland. I would have been six years old. I grew up in Salt Lake until the end of the Second World War.
When I was nine, I unfortunately contracted rheumatic fever. In those days, the only drugs were some new drugs called sulpha that the Germans had invented. One of the aspects of care for rheumatic fever was having to remain in bed and remain as still as possible. The adults skillfully deflected my enquiries about how long this would last, but I soon recognized that it would not be soon. So I spent eleven months in bed during a time when there was no television. We did have radio, of course. I was able to listen to my favorite serials and follow the daily news on the progress of the war. That’s where I learned to read a lot.
My older sister Billy Beth was in college at the time, and she had some college books laying around. As a nine-year-old kid with nothing to do, I plowed through some of those, not always understanding what I read of course.. I was particularly fond of the Dialogues of Plato. I read all of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. We had an encyclopedia [set] which I read quite a bit of, since there was nothing else to do.
I also taught myself how to play chess. That was handy, because I was able to get pretty good at playing solo. Later, when I managed to get out, I joined a chess club and eventually won the Utah Junior Chess Championship at the age of 14.
That period was one of the most important turning points in my life. I was fortunate that the school didn’t hold me back. They felt that I had read enough and advanced me through the fourth grade.
It was a very formative experience in my life. Both of my parents worked. My twin sister was in school and my older sister was either out, or at college, so I had a lot of time to myself. Not many people are lucky to have a year to do nothing, but read and develop their imagination. I had to do this with the help of the radio scripts conveniently provided in the form of exciting stories of heroes like “the Shadow,” the Lone Ranger, Jack Armstrong the all American Boy, and the Green Hornet.
Later when I got to the first year of high school, I had a scary and imposing English teacher named Miss Henderson. She gave us a writing assignment but one day she made me stay after class and said, “Where did you copy this?” I said, “I didn’t copy it. I just made it up.” She was suspicious, because she was familiar with a lot of the con artists that came through her classes. But she was apparently impressed and suggested that I take the entrance exams being given for early entry to the University of Chicago. I took those entrance exams and received a Ford Foundation scholarship. When I was 15, I skipped the rest of high school, loaded on a train and went to Chicago.
Q. What was it like being so young and going off on your own to Chicago?
It was very exciting. I was thrilled about the idea of going off to a big city. The university had lots of publicity as being one of the tougher, more scholarly schools. When I got there, they had everything programmed so well that I had no time to get into trouble, or do little else but study. Even today their students wear T-shirts that say, “Chicago, Where fun comes to die.” They had a week of entrance exams. If you passed them, then you were allowed to skip some courses. Unfortunately, I was not able to skip, so I had a full four-year plan to follow.
And I played chess, surprising a few of my older classmates when they played me. They expected this rube from the sticks not to play very well. I also played on the intramural basketball team. We played local colleges like Wheaton and Northwestern. Chicago had banished all intramural sports, so it was not a high profile program, but at least playing chess and playing basketball were the sports part that allowed me to think about becoming a Rhodes Scholar. I really liked Chicago. I enjoyed the curriculum. I read a lot. I was exposed to entirely new things. It was a stimulating time. My past experiences had apparently engrained in me the idea, perhaps strange to many my age, that learning is actually fun and exciting.
Q. What did you focus on for your studies at your time at Chicago?
At the time, the most famous person at Chicago was Robert Hutchens who had designed the Great Books program. He was a very charismatic individual. People said he was a great critic of American college education. Somebody once asked him, “If you’re so critical of American colleges, what would you recommend?” He said, “The only thing available would be to go through Yale twice.” He had graduated from Yale Law School. I liked him and I agreed that college sports should not preempt learning, and that college should not be a preparation for a technical job but a preparation for learning the rest of one’s life.
I thought I would be a college teacher. Because of my introduction to Plato, I had it in my mind that I might become a philosophy major. I took philosophy courses other than the prescribed courses which everybody had to take in the planned curriculum. There was a three year sequence of math, sciences, humanities, and social sciences. A lot of emphasis was placed on the underlying assumptions behind knowledge and the way knowledge is organized. They had a senior final course called Organization Methods and Principles of the Sciences, which was supposed to pull everything together. It was a scholastic curriculum which you might think of in the Middle Ages, with emphasis on the ideas and assumptions of all the subject matter, not just the traditional survey courses. Teaching one to think critically was the highest priortiy I did well in those courses.
I was nominated by some faculty and applied for the Rhodes scholarship and was very thrilled to be accepted. When I got to Oxford I decided to enroll in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), but right away I discovered I hated economics and I wasn’t very enthusiastic about politics. They had another curriculum which was called PPP–Philosophy, Psychology and Physiology. You were able to take half time in philosophy and half time in psychology, or physiology if you were more in the medical bent. I took philosophy and psychology. That is what I spent most of my two years at Oxford doing. And that was the basis of my decision to apply to graduate schools in psychology in the United States.
Q. When you went to Oxford was it culture shock for you? Was it your first time abroad?
It was my first time abroad. It was still a post-war atmosphere in England. They were recuperating from the war. The food was lousy. The rooms were cold. There was no central heating. But life at Oxford was stimulating, and the choice between goofing off or intense study was, for Americans at least, a free choice. In many ways, Oxford was like Chicago with a strong emphasis on writing and independent study. And there were many academic, social, and sporting clubs to choose from. Most of all one was surrounded by brilliant, funny, energetic comrades and scholars.
I usually had two tutorials a week. There are a whole bunch of lectures which are given in the university part of Oxford, which is like a separate corporation. You are recommended by your tutor to go to those, but nobody keeps a record. You can stay, or not stay as you wish. Many students go to the lectures a few times, decide they are boring, and don’t go back. The freedom to go to the lectures was very pleasant. I found a couple of lectures in philosophy that were particularly good and attended them religiously.
It was also my first exposure to psychology in any depth. I had read Freud, of course in Chicago, but this was more experimental. It was very empirically-based and one of the features was reproducing many of the great experiments in psychology up to that time. You got a very hands-on look at some of the basic theories in psychology. A tutorial often consisted of a pleasant stroll along the river with your tutor while being quizzed about the assigned reading.
Oxford is a place that has an extremely diverse culture. College life there is quite blessed. The students are mostly very brilliant, but the attitude toward Oxford varies from that of a man who wants to be a professional scholar to those who feel like getting a third is really what a gentleman should do. Anybody who works harder than that might be considered something of a dullard and poor company. The gentlemen’s third is what many of them strive for, but often there is intensive study hidden behind the rakish exterior. The Americans, it seemed, worked a little harder than many of the British, but it still seemed effortless and mixed with great pleasures of the whole scene. Though I ended up getting one of the rare firsts, I was pretty daunted by the level of talent and what they expected, but I enjoyed it tremendously.
At the same time, I was able to travel quite a bit. My close friend, Al Utton, was an extraordinarily likable guy from New Mexico. We hitchhiked together through France, Italy, Spain, and North Africa. We had some wonderful experiences, one of which I recall with great fondness. We were in the Mediterranean town of Torremolinos in the south of Spain. We went to a little cafe at night to see the gypsy singers and dancers. There was a very loud American who was drunk at the table next to us . He invited us over and it turned out to be John Steinbeck. During that time, another loud American came bursting into the cafe and started an argument with him, saying that he was a much better author than Steinbeck. Steinbeck replied that he threw away a novel every week. Apparently, they had been together on the ship coming over and had gotten into some pretty angry confrontations. So this man came up to the table and started really being mouthy and Steinbeck, just like you see in the movies, took a bottle of wine, cracked it over the edge of the table, and went after the man, at which point the flamenco dancers and waiters grabbed the ugly American and threw him out the door. They knew that Steinbeck was not only a famous writer, but a lover of Spain.
Q. Are there any lessons you took from your Rhodes experience into your present day life?
One of my tutorials made an impression on me. I wrote a paper on psychology and my tutor made the comment that it was very scholarly and touched all the questions that had been posed by him, but he said I needed to stop only reading other people’s thoughts and use more of my own. He encouraged me to be more thoughtful and less textbook scholarly. This idea that scholarly life involves more than just fulfilling a specific lesson someone else sets out for you, stuck with me. Someone can ask a question that points the way, but it’s up to you to enrich that question with your own unique vision.
I also played basketball at Oxford and had the pleasure of playing against Cambridge and getting my half blue, allowing me to wear a striped blue tie. Basketball being what it was at Oxford (before Bill Bradley), involved taking a bus fifteen miles to an American airbase gym in order to practice. The teams we played were scraggly and less proficient than our ordinary pickup games in college. But I had the experience of playing on teams with people like Paul Sarbanes (former Senator of Maryland) and Dick Lugar (former head of the senate foreign relations committee), and a number of others who went on to become well known.
The experience of being with people who subsequently became prominent was a lasting benefit of being at Oxford, where so many friends and acquaintances went on to illustrious professional lives. One of my favorite people that I met was a young man in my class from Oregon who was a poet. Before he finished his term he married a young woman who later became a famous Irish folk singer. But then tragically, he died of cancer while at Oxford. I have small book of his verses, reminding me still of how important it is to live each day as if it might be the last. What I took from Oxford was a sense of belonging to a special group of people.
Q. Let’s go back to your childhood and talk about your parents. What were their educational backgrounds?
My parents had a rough time in the great Depression. My mother finished high school, but my dad ran away from home during the Depression when he was sixteen. He looked for any sort of work and even tried out becoming a prize fighter. My father’s side of the family were Italian immigrants and my mother’s family were farmers. Though they had little education themselves, they were rigorous in demanding that we put in effort at school while growing up.
Q. He ran away from where?
Pocatello, Idaho. He was a jack of all trades. He got whatever jobs were available. First, he was a miner. We were in Bingham, Utah, because he was working in the copper mines there. Later, he switched to a copper refining plant. He always worked the night shift. He was a machinist at the plant where he got some training. He could do pretty much anything–painting, carpentry. He was a very good woodsmith and wordsmith. He made beautiful knives and gun handles. He was also good at sketching and drawing.
When we lived in Ophir, he taught himself to play the trombone. That was the era of Tommy Dorsey and the big bands. He became quite proficient with no formal training, and played in a small band in our little canyon town. He also taught himself to play the accordion. He never said much to me about what I should do, what I should be, but by example he was a guy who worked very hard. He was always there. He had very little formal schooling, but he was very clever and adept with words as well as with his hands.
My mother grew up on a farm in southern Utah. She usually worked either in a restaurant or a clothing store. One of the jobs I had as a teenager was working in the little restaurant where she worked called James’ Lunch. I was often the only person in the restaurant. The owner was Greek and he had a nephew who worked there who was a very talented cartoonist and a funny guy. We had a great friendship. He taught me how to do cartoons in our spare time.
One of the experiences that I recall while I was working there was when a vagabond-looking guy with a knapsack, hiking boots and a broad brimmed hat came into the restaurant. He asked me about school. And he said he had written a book about his travels in the Orient. It had lots of engravings and hand drawings of bare breasted women (which apparently interested me at the time). It was actually a very interesting travel book which he signed and gave to me. He hoped I would some day have some of the same adventures that he had. That seems like an odd thing to happen in this particular place in that part of town. But he was a very interesting, lovely man who made a strong impression on me. I still have the book in my library.
Q. Was one parent more influential than the other or not?
I wouldn’t say one was more important than the other. Both parents were working all the time and supportive of me. My father filled out crossword puzzles all the time and was able to do amazingly difficult crossword puzzles that nobody else could do. This is a man who never finished high school. His attention to language and the importance he placed on correct pronunciation had a fair amount of influence. He used to bellow at people on the radio who spoke incorrectly.
My mother was always very supportive of whatever I did in school. Neither was well-educated, but they took an active hand in my early schooling. Especially the example of my father who was such a hard worker, who also was able to apply himself to avocational things, as well as hard work.
Q. Besides hard work, what other values do you think they tried to instill in their children?
Honesty and compassion for others. As I mentioned earlier, it was very natural for my father to pay attention to Mrs. Howarth and to encourage me to help someone who depended on others. This compassion for people turned out to be rewarding and important to me, even though I was a preschooler. Fortunately, she turned out to be more pleasurable and fun than anything, because she was so interesting to talk to. There was a sense that it was my duty to help her. If I wasn’t taking her food, he’d say, “Why don’t you go down and help her feed the chickens?” He was very generous to neighbors. He would always do things for people if they needed help. I didn’t think of those things as a child, but that was an extremely important sense of needing to do something for other people. That was more by example than by any direct lectures.
Q. Up to the point that you went off to college, did you have any other role models besides your parents, either fictional or real?
Sherlock Holmes was very important to me. I liked the fact that he played the violin, but he was also observant and used his mind in a very rational way. Here was a duality that the author wanted to pose to people: this brilliant, slightly withdrawn person was able to solve crimes through the pure application of thought. That was very much part of the mystique of Sherlock Holmes.
Also, at that time Basil Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes, and I used to hear those mysteries on the radio. I should mention that we had no television. We had a radio and they had mystery plays and things of that sort–an entirely imaginary world that you had to create in order to follow along. I had to create the mood and the environment that was sketched out on the radio script.
Other role models…I am eternally grateful to Ms. Henderson. She was an old-fashioned teacher. She was not liked by most of the students, because she was extremely stern and very strict. She was very perfectionistic about the English language. She turned out to be extremely warm and a generous person, who spent a fair amount of effort trying to get me into a different world. She actually came to Chicago for my graduation along with my parents. She was my freshman English teacher–the only year I had in high school. She was very important as a teacher. Stroke of luck really, otherwise I’d be pumping gas in Salt Lake City today.
Q. It doesn’t sound like you had that type of personality to begin with though.
I was different, because I had been out of school for a year reading. That really changed me. It made me a little weird as far as my colleagues were concerned.
Q. Besides the books from your sister, where did you get your other reading material?
My sisters, or my parents brought books home from the library. I had a whole series of classics that included the Dialogues of Plato. Although my comprehension was not at the college level, the very effort of struggling to comprehend probably shaped me a good deal.
Chess was another influence that was important. It gave me a sense of accomplishment. It also requires an attention to strategic thinking which has been useful.
Luck is very important in one’s total career. I’ve had a generous amount of luck. Ms. Henderson was one. My first job when I graduated from Harvard was a stroke of luck.
Q. What was that?
When I graduated from Harvard, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, so I took a year as a post-doc at the University of Colorado. I had done an internship with children, but I wanted to get an adult post-doc experience in a psychiatric hospital. As I was there, I received a letter from a man at Johns Hopkins named John Money, one of the pioneers in the field of sexual psychology. He was responsible for the in-depth psychology of people who wanted to change gender. He wrote to my graduate professor and asked if they had anybody they would recommend for a job, so I got a letter inviting me to work with him on hermaphrodites.
I wrote back saying, “Dear Dr. Money, I’m not even sure what a hermaphrodite is, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to spend my life working on it.” He passed the letter on to chief of psychiatry at Hopkins who was Leon Eisenberg. Eisenberg was a young professor who had succeeded Leo Kanner as chief of child psychiatry. Kanner had written the first textbook of child psychiatry. Eisenberg was, in fact, looking for someone to work with him on psychopharmacology studies with children, which they were just undertaking. He wrote me a letter and sent a couple of his reprints which I found astonishingly brilliant and captivating. I thought this is guy I could really learn from, so I accepted that position at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Pretty soon I found myself independently working in an outpatient child psychiatric clinic alongside a child psychiatrist and a social worker. My purpose was to do research and work with Eisenberg on his research projects.
The first controlled trial of dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine) in delinquent boys had just finished. They asked me to analyze the data for the study and when I did so, I was quite astonished, because the level of improvement in the kids that got the drug compared to the placebo was really remarkable. They used a simple checklist of symptoms that the cottage parents who housed the kids would fill out on a daily basis. So that was actually my first paper which I was the last author on.
We began a series of studies on drug treatments for children, and we had at the time very little in a way of a psychiatric nosology, or diagnostic framework. I took this checklist and began to study it and add to it, do some more elaborate statistical kinds of things to it. I began to discover patterns of behavior that were constellations of symptoms. It seemed to represent important processes in kids, so I published a paper on the use of this checklist in drug trials with child psychiatric patients. It got quite a lot of attention, in the nascent era of psychopharmacology. Thorazine had just been introduced and there was great excitement that there were drugs that were actually making a big dent in serious psychiatric illness. I got a lot of interest in my paper because it provided a reliable tool for measuring the outcome of drug studies, eventually becoming one of the most published articles in the field.
The luck of being in that situation at that time was very important to me, and an example of how a certain concatenation of events leads to a path that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t taken that job with Eisenberg. I may have ended up working in a small college as a professor teaching freshman psychology, or something like that. Not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s just a path that is very different from the one I ended up on.
Q. When you were growing up, did your family travel by any chance take any road trips?
Travel was entirely related to the circumstances of earning a living. We almost never took vacations, or road trips. But we moved from Utah to Pocatello, Idaho, then to Ophir, Utah, and finally to Salt Lake City, all in a relatively small period of time. There really wasn’t much travel after we settled in Salt Lake City. My parents were tied down to their jobs, and we didn’t have much money. There weren’t the facilities, or resources to take a trip. The most my parents ever did was my mom would go with a friend and drive over the state line to Winnemucca, Nevada, to push the slot machines. In Salt Lake City, at the time there was a lot of freedom within that large area. It didn’t seem like we were confined. There was always a lot to do. I never felt like I needed to go anywhere.
It was a big, big change when I left for Chicago. I boarded the train by myself and took it all the way through the Rockies to Chicago. I ended up in a train station bigger than anything I had ever been in. I don’t even remember how I got to school. I probably took a taxi, which would have been the first taxi drive I ever had in my life.
Q. Did religion have a huge role in your upbringing?
Growing up in a Mormon community, my parents were not particularly religious. My father was originally Catholic, but he was very anti-religious. My mother’s mother was very much a good Mormon lady. My mother had grown up as a Mormon, but was not religious herself. The importance of the church at that time as a youngster growing up in Salt Lake City was very positive, and though I went to church regularly it was mostly because I had a group of friends who were committed to scouting and learning, all very much supported by church activities. There was always a lot of hiking, camping, and crafts related to native Americans and the Old West. One of my good friends and I won the semiphore championship where you send signals by waving flags.
The general ethos of the Mormon church, as weird as it seems to many, has a strong emphasis on education and of course, not smoking and drinking. The peer group was part of a system that kept you honest, kept you connected, and emphasized learning and achievement. It was very important in that respect.
The non-alcoholic part of it had an interesting consequence. When I was at Harvard, in one of the rotations we had through a psychiatric hospital, they were in the beginning of the first double blind studies of a strange new drug called LSD. A bunch of us graduate students were recruited to participate. They had this situation with a one-way mirror where you go into a room, and you drink either vodka spiked orange juice or orange juice with LSD. Fortunately, I got the vodka because at that time they didn’t know the doses, or just how powerful and dangerous the drug could be. However, since it was the first alcohol I ever had it did make me appear rather crazy to the observers; I became silly. I eventually had to be carried home. It was eight ounces of vodka in orange juice, but I was probably sillier and crazier at that time than the people who got the LSD.
The sad part of that story is a couple of the people who took the LSD became psychotic and dropped out of school. I don’t know whether it triggered something, or if it was an overdose. One, in particular, was a young man who was very smart and a very good student, who apparently did not recover.
Again, the way the dice was thrown I was lucky to be in that “control” group, and my background as a Mormon probably produced that dramatic reaction to the alcohol. I never learned to smoke, except for the occasional celebratory cigar. I never really learned to drink. Those were important gifts in the long run.
Your point about the importance of religion is that it was important in that if protected me from some possible bad alternatives. I gave up my religion later. Freud was largely responsible for that. When I read his Civilization and Its Discontents and the Future of an Illusion, the arguments were pretty persuasive that religion was not for me. However, to each his own.
Q. Once you won the Rhodes, did you feel any pressure to succeed, or to be great?
I never felt pressure to succeed, or to make money. I always had great confidence that things would work out well. Maybe I was overconfident. I got a lot out of the University of Chicago, and certainly from being a Rhodes Scholar, and obviously a good deal from Harvard. Even had I been a lousy student and a hack as a psychologist, it still would have gotten me through a lot of doors. I guess I subscribe to Pasteur’s saying that, “Fortune favors a prepared mind.”
It’s a little hard to dissociate the face value from the real value. I always felt that these were very good choices that served me well. Success came very easily. I always enjoyed what I was doing tremendously. I had great sense of liberation and discovery in my first job when I found I could really use and do something with all the training I had. I was able to write papers; I was able to serve on government committees; participate in site visits and grant reviews; think about problems in a way which led people to invite me to do other things. The breadth of experience and reading is probably a lot more important than technical expertise or tremendous depth in a single field. But eventually I did get a lot of depth in my field, because one thing led to another out of sheer interest.
I was also lucky to be in a period when a lot of things happened to facilitate my progress. Whenever I read the current biographies of Rhodes Scholars, I thank God I’m not competing today. It seems like everybody has such a multitude of talents and experiences well beyond anything I had. It’s very hard to transport yourself forward in time like that and really know how I would have fared in today’s world, but there is no question that the Rhodes experience opened up a lot of doors, not just in the sense that it made me favored. It also opened my mind a good deal. It was a tremendously valuable experience.
Q. When did you first hear about the Rhodes?
It was the third year at Chicago. I was walking across the Midway on a very cold, blustery day and suddenly thinking, “I’d like to be a Rhodes Scholar.” I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know if I read anything, or if anybody said something about it. I must have come across it some way and it was buried and came to mind at this particular time. I went about finding what to do, made the application and started that process of multiple interviews and serious questioning by former scholars and experts. I was quite amazed when I won. One of the questions asked by a scientist who interviewed me in the early stages of the process in Salt Lake City was about the formula for the way gases combine to produce smog. I had not the slightest clue. (Laughs.) I thought, “Oh boy, I’m out of here.” Fortunately, that was not the only type of question I got asked.
Q. As an adolescent, how did you handle obstacles or failure?
I certainly remember not liking to fail at chess. The first time I competed in the chess championship I lost in the finals. The second time I tried, I won. I was 14. I remember not liking the sense of losing a game. When I lost it would send me back to work to get better.
I just remember failure did not seem like an option. If I didn’t do well on an exam, I would have to work really, really hard to make sure I corrected that. My response to the challenge was to try harder. I don’t ever remember ducking out. I remember one disappointment when I was at Chicago. In the last year I took a graduate course in philosophy. I did not do well on the final. That was the first time I had ever not done well in a final at Chicago. I got a B, or a B- and it really bothered me tremendously that somehow I hadn’t grasped the level of detail the course required. It left a very bad taste in my mouth right at the end of my career at Chicago. If I had stayed, I would have taken the course again.
Q. What aspects, or qualities that Cecil Rhodes wanted in the scholars do you continue to value or hold in the highest?
Probably first is the idea of serving others with what you do. I certainly liked the sense of accomplishment you get from playing competitive sports but that was not as important to me as the idea that it’s not all about you. It’s about what you can do for other people as well. That was part of the reason I gradually drifted into clinical psychology as opposed to being a basic scientist, or experimental psychologist. The idea that I could contribute something on a personal level working with individual patients and clients. That seemed to me to be something that called upon everything that you know and includes everything you’ve become from what you’ve done with yourself. I liked the sense that my education gave me a very broad acquaintance with the world’s literature, history and the ideas behind science. At a later point I corrected the imbalance in my training in not having learned much about Eastern psychology and Eastern religion.
It just seemed to me the more that you have to offer as a person the better one becomes as a therapist and the more likely you are to understand the issues that come to you as a scientist. I always had that sense in my career that I didn’t just want to be an experimentalist or researcher, but someone who could work with patients face to face and that’s been very valuable because patient contact and science inform each other. Personal, clinical work informs your research and vice versa. I think that’s where I differ from many of my colleagues in the field that I’ve worked with. Usually the most well known famous people in this field of psychology are researchers who have made important contributions, but many of them have rarely seen a real patient so that they are kind of at a loss when they have to do something at that level. I feel that keeping a balance there was very important. And I think that was part of the Rhodes experience was the idea that you’re given a lot with that type of education but your responsibility is to use it for the benefit of other people. I think that value is something that has been important to me.
Q. What would you recommend to someone either young, or old about leading a meaningful and useful life?
There are many, many paths to having a meaningful and useful life. Freud’s famous dictum was Lieben und Arbeiten (to love and to work). He was very good with the work part of it, not so good at the rest, which is one of the more common traps of the academic approach to life. You strive for meaning in the sense you try to understand the way everything works, knowledge of the human condition, of consciousness, cosmology, where the earth came from, where humans came from, bio-evolution, social evolution–all of that knowledge helps to give life meaning. Once you understand how everything works, whether you’re thinking of it in terms of the Buddhist tradition or more Western, scientific tradition, having some idea of how it all works is what gives meaning to your life and enables you to teach or give something of value to others.
Without some compassion, without some caring, or giving and loving, it’s pretty hollow. This is the struggle that most of us end up trying to keep in balance. It’s very easy when you’re in mid-career, for example, to become consumed by the career with the danger that you forget that a meaningful life must have a compassionate part. I like the Buddhist notion that insight into the way things work is a very great goal, but without compassion or metta (loving-kindness) it doesn’t succeed, or work at all. That’s perhaps a little too philosophical, but is a constant struggle that we face. That’s where I have arrived at this particular chapter.
Q. You said you tried to balance it out by looking into Eastern philosophy. At point did you start doing that?
In 1974 I moved from Harvard to the University of Pittsburgh where I got interested in the recent discoveries of neurofeedback, and for a while ran a kind of pain and relaxation clinic. I learned to use both muscular and brain signals to alter behavior. I had this notion that it would be very interesting to take a portable EEG and study people who had been practicing meditation for a long time.
When I moved to Pittsburgh, I told my boss before I started to work that I wanted to go to Nepal to study meditating monks using a portable EEG, the size of a small suitcase. There was an ad in the American Psychologist talking about a seminar on Buddhist thought and culture. I thought I’ll just sign up for that and use that as my base. It turned out to be very propitious, because the seminar was organized and taught by the chief Buddhist monk in Nepal (named Bikkhu Sumongala).
I approached him and asked if it would be possible to study attention in people who practice meditation and who spend a lot of their life practicing how to direct their attention. He was very funny. He said, “Oh, you think it’s possible to study attention out of those little wires?” And I said, “It’s a way to get to what’s going on in the brain while people are studying and thinking.” He said, “That’s fine. I don’t understand this, but if you really want to learn about attention, I can teach you about attention without the little wires.” Of course, that’s all they do. They study attention in a very personal and direct way.
He led classes on meditation, and we had other teachers who were quite advanced in Buddhist culture. Some monks from several temples also came and talked. I did get quite a few recordings, but I got more and more interested in the practice of meditation and Buddhist psychology. That was the period of life when I corrected the one-sided learning that I had. Later, the Bikkhu visited and stayed with me for a short time in my little house in Pittsburgh. I used the occasion to start trying out some of the meditation techniques in the treatment that we were doing with children and their parents. I must admit that I was reluctant to publish in that area, and now regret that I did not use that occasion to introduce what is now becoming more and more an accepted part of innovative practices for treatment of attention deficit and related disorders.
When I left Pittsburgh I became director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Medicine at Children’s Hospital National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. There I was able to continue studies of neurophysiology of attention, especially with a new class of drugs called “Nootropics” or drugs that enhance learning and attention.
Finally I came to Duke where I established their Attention Deficit Disorder clinic. One of the major enterprises I became involved with was a large cross-national study of multi-modal treatments for ADHD (the MTA study). I also founded the Journal of Attention Disorders. So I would finish by saying that my entire career has involved the study of attention in one form or another.