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Opening minds
Peter D. Kramer knows what makes us tick

Yes, there has been life after Listening to Prozac. Dr. Peter D. Kramer, Providence psychiatrist and author of the 1993 best seller, has written four more books since that time, including a novel and Against Depression, which came out earlier this year.

And starting this month, local listeners have been able to hear his accumulated insights on the hour-long radio magazine The Infinite Mind, Saturdays at 7 pm on WRNI (1290 AM) in Providence and WXNI (1230 AM) in Westerly.

In April Kramer took over hosting the program from Dr. Fred Goodwin, who had done so for eight seasons, after having guest-hosted a half-dozen times. Last year, Kramer’s shows on domestic violence and mental health care for immigrants were award-winners. He has recently covered topics ranging from multi-tasking and dyslexia to animal companions and "foods and moods."

"We’re thinking about doing shows focused on one individual’s work," Kramer said, "where we think there are some great minds on the mind. Because that is the kind of research that I do for my nonfiction books — I will read 60 articles by a scientist and speak with him or her."

Described in the New York Times as "possibly the best-known psychiatrist in America," Kramer is clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and also maintains a private practice.

He was speaking by phone from Martha’s Vineyard, risking stereotyping by vacationing in the de rigueur vacation spot for psychiatrists in August.

Kramer gives credit to pop psychology for spreading awareness of the crucial chapter headings about mental health, although he wants to offer greater depth with the radio program.

"I do think that pop advice shows have largely been on target," he admitted. "They have to underscore the wisdom of the age, which is to say that they have to be cliched and tell us what we already know and give us some encouragement to do the things that we know we should do."

Of course, such timid restrictions for broadcasters can be stultifying for a culture. Kramer described sometimes not being able to avoid the morning TV news programs while working out at the gym. "In annoyance, I’ll look up and watch these shows," he said, "and I will say: ‘Have I learned anything new?’ You can go minutes and minutes and hours and hours and all you’re going to hear is what you knew already."

In contrasting depth, The Infinite Mind typically combines segments produced in the field and interviews with several experts interviewed by Kramer. For example, guests on a recent program on writer’s block included singer/ songwriter Aimee Mann, authors Fran Leibowitz and Joyce Carol Oates, a psychologist specializing in the problem, and actor Stanley Tucci reading excerpts from authors who have written about the difficulty over the years.

After all his practice thinking, writing, and speaking about what makes us tick, what has been the most important thing he has learned about how the mind works?

"To me the important lesson is the reality of variety and diversity — not everybody thinks as you do," he said. "I think the great lesson of psychotherapy for the therapist [is] that if somebody says something, you think you understand what they’re saying, but if you just hold back and inquire, you find out that he has some entirely different approach.

"I think that lots of marital problems, lots of problems in war and peace, probably have to do with a failure to appreciate the real presence of different minds," he continued.

There certainly has been a human tendency to cross our arms and remain intolerant of other’s opinions. What about American culture, specifically — what are some of our more prevalent collective personality problems?

"I don’t know that I can answer that," he modestly began. "I would say that I’m still somewhat focused on the issues I was interested in in my novel Spectacular Happiness, which had to do with pressures for conformity, pressures for making financial success the only kind of success in the culture. I don’t know that these are going to drive this show all that much."

Upcoming shows will go into such subjects as empathy, creativity, and religion, which will examine the neurology as well as the psychology of spirituality.

"One area that I think we'll probably try to emphasize more is writing, and things that relate to other interests of mine — the humanities may be more on display," he said.

"We aim for this to be good radio," Kramer promised.


Issue Date: August 19 - 25, 2005
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