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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

SCRAM combines psychology and art

Published: November 7, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

On Thursday, Nov. 6, the Student Committee for the Rose Art Museum (SCRAM) co-hosted a “Lamp Night/Late Night” event with the Psychology Club. The event, hosted at the Rose, consisted of a discussion of artist Magnus Plessen’s work “1914: Magnus Plessen” and was attended by a number of respectful and interested students. By the end of the event, all of the chairs were full, and there were another dozen students standing at the back of the room. The exhibit conveys the shock and breaking of soldiers’ identities by war.

The event was led by psychology graduate student Kenneth Pitts, who talked about PTSD and war’s effect on human psychology. Pitts is a Ph.D. candidate in the Psychology Department’s Brain, Body and Behavior program. He earned his undergraduate degree in biology and psychology from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. As a researcher at Brandeis’ Health Psychology Laboratory, Pitts hopes to apply his work on stress and health to disorders such as PTSD, seasonal affective disorder and major depressive disorder.

According to Clara Gray ’15, president of the Psychology Club, she and SCRAM President Alex Hall ’15 wanted to co-sponsor an event. Gray, who is a research assistant in the Health Psychology Lab that Pitts works in, thought that Pitts would be an ideal candidate for speaking at Lamp Night/Late Night.

Pitts was an extremely appropriate speaker for this event because he himself was in the United States Army. “I entered into the Army as a infantry private in April 1989. My first combat experience was in Panama in December 1989 through January 1990. Also, on my first enlistment, I was involved in a training for a number of contingency operations that never happened including hostage rescue missions in South America and in Kuwait during the first Gulf War,” he told SCRAM.

After 9/11, Pitts spent three of the following 10 years overseas and was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovinia, Kosovo and Afghanistan—the latter in 2011. In October 2012, he retired as a Sergeant Major after 23.5 years of service.

Interestingly, Pitts does not think that military-related suicides result from PTSD. Instead, he believes that the difficulty of fitting back into normal civilian life has a very strong correlation to these suicides. “It was like I had left the real world [the military] and entered a cartoon,” he said.

“Stress helps us adapt to the environment we live in. I will use a metaphor: Stress is an elastic band. It stretches out, then relaxes back to its original shape. But if the elastic band is stretched and strained for too long, it is fundamentally changed and does not function as it used to.”

Pitts continued to talk about the physiological aspects of stress and told his audience about the effects of cortisol and adrenaline, which are two hormones that induce the mobilization and liberation of energy to help one face challenge.

Because Pitts talked about his own personal experiences, he was able to successfully lead an enticing discussion that was understandable to those who are perhaps did not know much about physiology and psychology. He told the audience the basic mechanics of depression after returning home from deployment: The absence of high stress and high hormone activity leads to the dropping of body system and, eventually, depression.

Everyday, 22 veterans commit suicide because, despite the fact that the elasticity of stress is not returning to normal after coming back home, these veterans are expecting themselves to feel the same as they did before deployment. “You’re not broken. You only seem broken when you return,” Pitts said.

Simple but successful, the event was more than a lecture on stress, art and war. There were times when Pitts had to take a slight pause to gather himself because of the emotional and personal value PTSD and war has to him. Although there was not a lot of talk about the Plessen exhibit, Pitt’s stories and explanations were more than sufficient.