Monday, June 1, 2009

One of Psychology's big mistakes

I recently wandered into the foyer of a top five-star hotel, The Arabella Western Cape Hotel and Spa, only to find it invaded by biological psychiatrists. In fact, they had taken over the whole place for a few days to hold a conference on, you guessed it, 'Biological Psychiatry'.

Two things imediately made me sceptical, suspicious even. And, they were interlinked. First, the awkward name tag. And, second the huge amount of financial backing manifestly in evidence.

What's wrong with the name? Why is it awkward? Well, it seems to bind together two incomensurable disciplines - one associated with the body (biology) and the other associated with the mind (psychiatry). Now I can hear you thinking "Surely as a Pragmatist, you don't fall for all that old mind/body dichotomy stuff?"

Well, I don't. And clearly one of philosophy's most interesting and ambitious goals is to naturalise things non-reductively (e.g. bring the mind down from the metaphysical ether into the field of nature without sawing off its intriguing features in order to do so). But, I was sceptical as to whether the psychiatrists present had worked all this through. Had they really come up with an ingenious way of pulling together two disparate vocabularies, one involving intentions, desires, beliefs and so on and the other referring to physical causation and the behaviour of matter?

Of course, assimilating a discipline of dubious empirical merit to science is an effective way of both hiding that defect and paving the way for awards, grants, and research resources.

The money factor increased my doubts. It is far more likely, I thought, that money brought these two disciplines together than some intellectual innovation that hitched mind-talk into creative communicative harmony with body talk. What better way for the drug companies to peddle their expensive stuff than to sponsor a discipline that by its very name suggests a direct route from body to mind (the very route followed by their wares)? The impact of this factor is serious. Commercial corruption in medicine has become a huge problem (check out what has been happening at Harvard Medical School - see The New York Review of Books (recent archives)).

Stumped by the dim prospect of stemming the tide here, I started to reflect on psychology in general. (By the way, I think there are prima facie grounds scepticism about a profession
that cannot find a manageable name, that leaves the public to find its own way through a very confusing maize of terminology.
Think of: 'psycholanalysts', 'psychiatrists', 'psychologists', 'clinical psychologists', 'cognitive psychologists', 'behavioural psychologists', and zillions of types of therapists. I am just going to use the blanket term 'psychology'.)

The kind of psychology I grew up with, that shaped my thinking and my cultural ethos - Freudian psychology, no longer strikes me as remotely plausible. And, nothing else represents much of an improvement. I began to believe in the unconscious pretty early in life, and soon decided it was a good thing to make friends with. That seemed a better deal than treating it like a demon that had to be caged if I couldn't tame it.

I refined my understanding by taking on board some of Marcuse's nifty ideas ('surplus repression', 'polymorphous perversity', etc.), but later the whole Freudian schema, refined or otherwise, made little sense. It wasn't that it had been refuted, it just fell by the wayside.

Freud himself began to look less like the scientist he aspired to be and more like someone who spawned some fascinating fantasies about the life of the mind, fantasies that turned out to have a hidden shelf life. However, 'Civilisation and its Discontents' is still on my list of must read books. But, it's now in the fiction category.

As Pragmatism got a stronger grip on me, I began to take a very different view of the mind, one that didn't fit together very well with anything I saw psychologists doing and saying. In the first, and most extreme instance, I even had trouble isolating the mind from its environment. With holism's map in my back pocket, everything seemed to be connected to everything else and the sharp divisions between things morphed into conventions backed by pragmatic pay-offs.

A handy slogan for this view is "The Mind is everywhere if it is anywhere". My hunch is that this links up with what the Zen Buddhists call "Big Mind", and I further conjecture that in the 60s, the hippie/counter culture movement simply got it wrong when they brazenly cashed all this out in terms of expanded awareness. Hence, a second slogan: "Mind is more than my awareness".

An important practical benefit of this outlook could be that the prospect of death becomes less daunting. If I identify with, and attach value to, things outside my head, say, my work, my friends and family, artitfacts I have produced, and so on, then there is a sense in which I can live on after my death. I find this consoling as I pour more of myself into my writing and my children. Whether I should be so consoled given how the universe is likely to end (see previous post on this topic) is nevertheless still a tricky question.

Of course, if we can only identify with a certain locus of awareness, if we can't stop believing that there is some special boundary around this awareness that makes us who we essentially are, that we need to be hemmed in to exist, then the prospect of that awareness being obliterated is quite scarey by comparison. But, this is a huge topic. Let me narrow things down to a particular example.

Consider emotions. On the holistic view, once again, these are not psychological atoms drifting around in the mind, they are linked up to all sorts of things in all sorts of ways. They do not hang suspended in psychological space playing their own tunes quite separately from rational concerns. For instance: they consort with beliefs. The ancient Stoics had a good line on this. By themselves, emotions are boring. It is only when beliefs and judgements enter the picture that they become interesting - and, if we do not take responsibility for what what we bring to the party, problematic.

Emotions even have a history, and not just their own.

Many psychologists seem to make a big mistake in their general approach to, and handling of, emotions. Especially those whose methods involve dredging up past emotions or focusing on particular ones in order to somehow improve a person's present psychological state (and/or future behaviour).

Think of someone who is often fearful, timid, and totally lacking in confidence. Surely such a person must have felt confident (and hence neither fearful nor timid) at some point in their lives? What if we get them to concentrate on one such feeling of confidence that they once experienced? Won't that help them to positively reorientate their inner state? Although this is example is simplistic, it is typical of psychological approaches to the emotions. And, it gets just about everything wrong.

There is no such thing as a feeling of confidence as such (for a start, it isn't an emotion). But, let us allow that kind of talk just to get things started. On the view that feelings are not psychological atoms, the confidence that I experience at a particular time is linked up, in complex ways, to the whole situation I am in. To later bring the feeling component of it forward, out of context, to play a therapeutic role is to misunderstand its nature and to mystify its causal significance.

To focus on a past feeling of confidence in order to instil confidence now, is to get things the wrong way round causally speaking. Confidence is an effect of acting in certain ways (and/or being acted towards). It can generate further feelings of confidence under its own (affective) steam, but these are inappropriate (and can be pathological) by themselves - that is, independently of the circumstances, both social and personal, that make confidence appropriate (I have heard psychologists blithely say that 'appropriateness' should not be predicated of feelings, as if they just exist and the links we are alluding to are merely incidental).

To get a fix on how New Age therapy fads frequently misconstrue things, run this example through substituting "happiness' for 'confidence'.

In itself, happiness is inconsequential, and hence not worth pursuiing.

Upshot? Chasing past feelings for present purposes, as psychologists are often inclined to do, is disasterous. It ignores the subtle ecology of the mind within which everything has its time and place.

Pouring chemicals into that ecology, as I suspect the biological pychiatrists (and their sponsors)are keen on doing is an even more daunting prospect. And, it is likely to do even more damage.

End Notes: (1) Alert readers will notice that some of what I say is still couched in non-Pragmatist terms - I talk about emotions as if they have a nature, and so on. But, this talk rests, in the end, on Pragmatic considerations: things work out better if they are treated in this way (at least until we find better descriptions, etc.). Furthermore, no Pragmatist is going to hold that disparate vocabularies must be kept apart because of their inherent features. It's simply that, like different tools, they are suited to different tasks. If someone finds a useful way of combining scalpels with lawnmowers, that's fine. I just don't think that biological psychiatrists have performed the equivalent of that feat. (2) If you are not a philosopher, and you find all this baffling, here is some background reading that might help. For illumination on why it is a mistake to circle the wagons around inner states (on grounds that they are private, known only to the person in question, and, indeed, 'inner') see Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations , Sellars' Empiricism and The Philosophy of Mind , and Putnam's work on the question as to whether meanings are in the head. For more on Holism, start with James' great classic Pragmatism. For a rejoinder to my dismissive treatment of Freud by an excellent philosopher and fully trained psycho-something-or-other, check out Jonathan Lear's Freud.

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