Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Actually, I'm type R...

We all talk about "type A" personalities and, for the most part, we understand the essence of the psychological shorthand. But where did it come from?

Somewhere in all this, of course, is hidden the question of discovery: How did Friedman and Rosenman figure out the type A story to begin with? I recently had the privilege of hearing it from the horse’s mouth, from Meyer Friedman himself. At 86, he runs the Meyer Friedman Institute and is in the thick of ongoing research. A self-proclaimed type A, he suffered a heart attack at a relatively early age, then made some changes in his life. Cardiologists are not usually introspective and psychologically minded, but Friedman is a strong exception. 

It’s the form of the introspection that struck me as relevant to this story. We discussed his work over the course of several visits, and though his demeanor is cordial and gentle to an extreme, he illustrated half his examples of type A-ness with a self-excoriating confessionalism. He told me all about what an angry, impatient, unappreciative S.O.B. he was in his prime, regaling me with tales of people he was curt to, whose efforts he never noticed, whose accomplishments he envied. His confessions took an almost religious tone at times, as if coronary blood vessels have become our ledgers of sin. (Happily for many of us, type A science has its parallels not with religions whose leaders gave signs of their saintliness from the time of their births, but with those in which dissolute youth finds redemption later in life.) As our conversations progressed, it occurred to me that Friedman might not be the most accurate narrator; I suspect that this kind and sensitive man has probably been that way his entire life, and that he’s way too hard on himself. 

During those visits, Friedman told me about the discovery of the type A link. It was the mid-1950s, and he and Rosenman were having an unexpected problem with their successful cardiology practice: they were spending a fortune reupholstering the chairs in their waiting rooms. There seemed to be no end of chairs that had to be fixed. One day a new upholsterer came in to see to the problem, took one look at the chairs, and discovered the type A-cardiovascular disease link. He announced it semicryptically, with the words: What the hell is wrong with your patients? People don’t wear out chairs this way. The front-most few inches of the seat cushions and the armrests--and only the front-most few inches-- were torn to shreds, as if some very short beavers had spent the night in the office craning their necks to savage the chairs. Obviously these particular waiting rooms were far from peaceful places. The patients habitually sat on the edges of their seats while fidgeting and clawing away. 

The rest should have been history. Upswelling music as the upholsterer is seized by the arms and held in a penetrating gaze--Good heavens, man, do you realize what you’ve just said? Hurried conferences between the upholsterer and other cardiologists. Frenzied, sleepless nights while teams of idealistic young upholsterers spread across the land, bringing back the news: Nope, you don’t see that wear pattern in the waiting rooms of the urologists, or the neurologists, or the oncologists, or the podiatrists--just the cardiologists. There’s something different about people who wind up with heart disease. And the field takes off. [More]

Yes, I am rained out - why do you ask?

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