FreePsychArticles#14  The Pinball Machine: Dealing with Limitations

In the year of my birth, 1947, the pinball machine arcade game underwent a developmental change.   Humpty Dumpty was the first pinball game to add player-controlled flippers to keep the ball in play longer and added a skill factor to the game.   Since then many new devices have been added such as electronic gaming, digital displays, fancy sound effects, speech and other computerized features.   Essentially the game has a limited number of player-controlled devices set into a multiplicity of background reward-stimuli.

From personal experience or movie scenes most people are familiar with the lights, bells, scorekeeping and body movements used to “tilt” the game tables in arcades.   By the end of the 20th century pinball had seen it’s peak in popularity and remains as a vintage symbol of the mid to late 1900’s.

What does pinball have to do with psychiatry, mental health and basic living skills?   As a model it can be used to bring out a simple but often ignored aspect of optimal human functioning.   Just as the pinball machine seems to give the impression one has control over the table as skill develops there is simply more outside the player’s control than in. In fact the majority of the game is spectator-limited.   There is the tilt factor.   One can get carried away with the goal of keeping the ball on the playing field to gather more points by tilting or lifting the table corners forcefully but can actually backfire as the tilt alarm is triggered.   The urge to tilt the machine is essentially futile.

So, in the midst of all the excitement of the game, with all it’s dazzling lights, colors, bells and whistles one really has very little control over the path of the ball once it is launched into the game except the button controlled stationary flippers.   There may be two or more placed around the pinball game field only effective once the ball rolls into their proximity.   At that moment the player suddenly yet briefly has limited operational control.  In fact, as skill develops the effectiveness of the flippers expands.   If target scores are achieved higher levels of play or free games are won.

Without the stimulating array of sights and sounds on the gaming table flipper control would seem dull and unrewarding.   Over involvement in them distracts and compromises one’s prowess with the flipper dynamic.

So is true in the game of life.   It is full of “bells and whistles” that draw us in.   In the difficult times of life everyone experiences times of feeling overwhelmed.   With bewilderment comes the feeling you’re exerting effort and energy with a lack of  equal reward or benefit.   It is a common and all too human.   Often we make plans that don’t go well.   We feel and see opportunities and expect a result yet something else occurs.   We get caught up in all the activity of the family or friends or our own desires.  Relationships become complicated and we don’t take the cues or say the right things.   Frustration can lead us to all sorts of mental turmoil.    Sometimes we ruminate over all the difficult or painful memories to the point we can barely move.   Other times we make impulsive or desperate attempts to right a situation to find it has only made matters worse.     So often we observe the theater of life events as passive viewers.    As ‘psychological beings’ we imagine we have an active role in much of this theater while mostly our roles in the drama or comedy are limited.

These are all aspects of the spectator phase of life where no matter how hard we try can, at best, set off the “tilt alarm” by pushing too hard.   In the process we miss the true opportunities to be effective.    In pinball terminology we forget our true strength to influence the game with “flipper action.”   It is amazing how much difference the game can turn out utilizing the flippers, with relatively little effort,  as they were intended.

How do we know we’re using the flippers and not just caught up the in all the excitement? In our modern world, where much of life is involved in hearing, seeing and feeling, how do we enter the game and influence those things around (and within) us?    What are our only effective tools to “score” on the table of life?

According to Dr. Abraham Low, a great early proponent of ‘Cognitive-Behavior Therapy’ our sphere of action, is through our ability to alter our beliefs and control our muscles.   Since we actually have no control over our temperament, genetic makeup or emotions our most vital strength is altering how we see things.   We can indirectly effect how we feel about something by what we believe.   This is the oversimplified adage often quoted:  “Just think positive.”   Most people get little benefit from this cliche’ and many simply don’t believe it.   They think things just happen, beyond our control, and fail to recognize the part their own beliefs plays in their lives.   Often they don’t recognize having beliefs or pre-determined conclusions since they are already solidified into their personal patterns and attitudes.    Yet, with an honest appraisal beliefs have the power to transform most, if not all the experiences of life.

There is a documentary about two Vietnam prisoners of war who spent several months chained to the same wall.   One man, the author of the story, was quiet and contemplative.   His fellow prisoner, an officer, talked all the time.   He was very knowledgeable of military strategy, geography and several other fields of no particular interest to the author who found him increasingly annoying and numerous arguments or disagreements occurred.   The specter of being held prisoner, unable to escape or find privacy was only worsened by the overbearing insistence of the officer.    The author became increasingly desperate and discouraged.   The intellectual competition was unbearable.   After several weeks he woke up realizing he could continue along this path no longer.   Unable to do anything else he decided he would stop fighting with the officer and become his student.   He altered his belief that he was intellectually equal and therefore deserved equal time and equal consideration of his ideas and chose to subordinate himself to his fellow.   From that moment on the two developed a highly mutually rewarding experience described by the author as one of the most enriching times of his life.   He learned about things far more interesting than he’d ever have imagined.   Even though the situation had not changed in any outward way,  he came to think of his fellow prisoner in a totally different light.  Instead of seeing him as his tormentor, he became an inspiration and asset in his struggle to survive.  After they were freed he was moved to write about his detainment and incredible transition.   Just one shift in his beliefs opened up a broad horizon of possibilities.

This example shows just one simple and dramatic result of using one’s functional ability to alter a belief and transform a situation.    In addition, since the ability to utilize control over his muscles appeared severely limited the changing of his belief produced unimaginable benefit.

Looking closer we find the most important functional control over his muscles was indeed utilized.   The muscles of the speech apparatus originate in the thought.  This specific ability to control muscles is frequently lost, overlooked or underutilized yet occupies one of the most important aspects of human interaction: Speech.   With his decision to become a student came a whole set of new thoughts expressed through his speech or silence.

Once we consciously focus on these two essential functions , our ability to alter our lives becomes tangibly better.   In Jewish thought it is called “Derech Eretz” or the “way of the land.”   It refers to many approaches but basically to common sense or the middle path.   Further, it refers to “common decency,”  as when the Torah instructs us to greet others before they greet us.   The main issue here is how we relate to ourselves, others and to our society at large.  Giving the benefit of the doubt, judging favorably and ultimately the basis of the Torah according to Hillel, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you” are all examples of beliefs under the control of our “flippers.”

Effectiveness in living with good mental health is within the grasp of everyone.   In fact, it is simpler and more available than what many think.   To approach the pinball table with attention to the player-controlled flippers and your eye on the ball is the essential task.

If you enjoyed this article please share it with others.   Your comments are appreciated.

Gershon Freedman, M.D.

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