[A little over a week ago, I went to witness a Q and A session with Martin Teicher. What follows is a work in progress.]
Martin Teicher sits in the prongs of a horseshoe of conference tables, surrounded by twenty-nine high school students. An affable face rounded by a neatly-trimmed beard, tufts of gray hair atop a bald pate, thin-rimmed glasses with thick lenses. He fiddles with his lapel mike's battery pack as he answers students' questions and peppers them with his own, his Harvard accent betrayed every time he says "huge"--it comes out "yuge.
The students, members of an International Baccalaureate psychology class, have journeyed to the Vancouver Hilton to meet this well-known researcher and clinical psychiatrist. In this special session, Teicher goes without notes, without Powerpoint slides, without an agenda. His talk ranges from the academic to the personal and covers a slew of fascinating topics. Below are just the highlights from his two hour talk. I've tried to summarize accurately, and quote where appropriate. (As is my habit, I sit in the back, close to the only available outlet.)
The first question is about Freud, and it's surprisingly relevant, given Teicher's most recent research. According to Teicher, Freud was the first person to talk scientifically about the effects of abuse. He was "...enormously ahead of his time, and on to something important. But he got scared... and basically wound up saying that this couldn't have happened, this number of people couldn't have been molested." Freud's inability to accept the reality of child abuse had a lasting influence. For the next century psychiatry ignored it. When Teicher started investigating the neurological effects of abuse, he kept his data private for seven years, waiting for a receptive scientific community.
Later, in the most colorful and affecting part of the Q and A, Teicher explains his motivation for becoming a psychiatrist. "When I was a freshman in college, I had no clue about the difference between psychology and philosophy. I had no idea. My best grades were in chemistry, I wanted to be a chemistry major. But it was also 1969, the era of Woodstock, riots on campus, free love. I wanted to grow my hair really long and become a rock star. I spent most of my time playing guitar. Soon, it turned into sampling illegal substances. I witnessed this thing freshman year--this kid came in having taken some humongous dose of LSD. The stuff he said was absolutely fascinating. And that prompted my interest in psychopharmacology. I really screwed up the first two years of college... didn't have stellar grades."
In med school, Teicher initially studied to become a pediatrician, interning in an intensive care unit. "I used to run out of the ICU crying. The only contact these preemies would have was poking and prodding... they would experience huge amounts of pain.... I really like little kids, working with them. But I couldn't inflict pain on someone who didn't understand why I was hurting them. In some ways that's why I went into psychiatry. Neurologists knew a lot, understood all this stuff, but didn't help people. Psychiatrists didn't know anything, but most of their patients got well."
Teicher has made waves in these later stages of his career by tackling controversial subjects. "I've been gunshy in the past about stirring up controversy, after the issues revolving around Prozac problems. My first grant [for childhood abuse] scored 499, one away from the lowest score. Two years later, it scored 102. I had too much in the first one, I had to tone it down a lot. That's part of science--it tends to be very conservative. They're very prone to say it's junk."
"This is good and bad--you have to fight really hard to change your field. The nice thing about doing science... it's often much more interesting than I could have possibly imagined. I tell people who want to work with me that I'm wrong 70-80% of the time."
Teicher's clinical practice drives his research. "I just happened to have three or four people in practice who became suicidal when taking medication. I had three patients who had abnormal EEGs, symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy, etc. All had child abuse in common."
[more to come]