10 Ways Psychology Can Drive You Crazy (and How To Avoid It)
What Happens When We Put Psychology on the Couch?
article by LiveReal Agent Blake
The irony isn’t lost on us.
Psychology – the “science of the soul,” the branch of human endeavor that is charged with the weighty mission of helping us understand ourselves and to help keep us sane…
- can drive us crazy.
It can saddle you up with more problems than you started with.
What are you experiencing right now?
Oh, really? Well, that’s a symptom of “_____ disorder.” (Insert menacing word there.)
How does that make you feel?
Oh, really? Well, that sounds like you might also have “_____,” “_____,” and “_____” disorders too. (Insert more menacing words.)
The above is an example of much of the stock and trade of the psychology business: diagnosing folks with all kinds of “disorders,” and then setting about the business of “treating” (not “curing,” just “treating”) them.
Kids don’t listen? They have “oppositional defiant disorder.” You aren’t good at math? You must’ve come down with a bad case of “Mathematics disorder.” Eat too much sometimes? You probably caught a little “Binge Eating Disorder.” Do you ever feel worried or sad? Must be a bout of mixed anxiety/depressive disorder. Shy? You clearly have a bad case of “social anxiety disorder.” Trouble sleeping after drinking too much coffee? You’re a victim of “Caffeine-Induced Sleep Disorder.”
We could go on. For a while.
(And yes, all these are “real” conditions – at least, as claimed by the DSM, the official “bible” of the psychiatry world.)
“The therapists transformed age-old human dilemmas into psychological problems
and claimed that they (and they alone) had the treatment…
The result was an explosion of inadequacy.”
- Charles Sykes
So you might easily walk in the door as a more-or-less “normal” person just looking to figure a few things out, and walk out suddenly suffering from dozens of “disorders” you didn’t know you had.
Some of the same folks who avoid telling kids that they didn’t “win” a soccer game so they don’t “scar them” with the stigma of “losing” an near-meaningless sporting event (participation trophy, everyone?) seem to have no problem “diagnosing” them with vaguely defined, barely understand, ominous and seemingly incurable “conditions” that easily become part of their identity and could follow them for the rest of their lives.
"I'm not strong enough to stand the remedies;
it's all I can do to stand the disease."
OK, let’s take a breath.
First of all, yes, we’re painting with broad strokes.
Psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, psychoanalysts, and counselors of all stripes are all different and run in very different circles. But since they’re all claiming some mantle of professional expertise on human behavior, we’re lumping them all together.
And yes, there are exceptions.
It’s easier to be a movie critic than to make a movie, and in this case, we’re being movie critics. Fair enough.
And yes, we’re being a bit harsh. Don’t get us wrong. Many psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, etc – are well-meaning, intelligent, caring, capable, competent professionals with the best of intentions.
But the system they’re working within, the magnitude of the problems they confront, the tools and training they’re given to overcome those problems…in many cases, let’s just say they’re up against some extremely difficult challenges. Sometimes they find themselves bringing rubber bands to knife fights, knives to cannon fights, cannons to thermonuclear wars. It’s rugged terrain.
"...Western humanity has turned from the priest to the doctor. Another psychiatrist complains that nowadays too many patients come to the medical man with problems which should really be put to a priest. Patients are constantly coming to us with problems such as, what is the meaning of their lives. It is not that we doctors attempt to carry philosophy over into medicine, although we are often accused of doing so; the patients themselves bring us philosophical problems. The individual doctor, confronted with such problems, may well be driven into a corner. But medicine, and psychiatry in particular, has thereby been compelled to cope with a new field."
- Viktor Frankl, M.D.
We also aren’t saying that real, legitimate issues or conditions don’t exist, or that all “disorders” are imaginary.
The problem is
1) overdoing it;
2) being oblivious to the effects of diagnosing you, labeling you, categorizing you, defining you, putting you in a box; and
3) having no good moves beyond #2.
The culprit here is taking perfectly normal aspects of what humans call “life,” and arbitrarily pathologizing them – categorizing them as some form of “something wrong” (call it illness, disease, disorder, etc.)
If you wanted to go full-boar-cynical, you could say that well, for psychologists, it’s good for business. (As long as you’re on the right side of the “business.”) First give ‘em a headache, then sell ‘em an aspirin.
So this perspective is pretty radical, right?
Some official head honchos would probably be offended by this, right?
But actually, the former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health – about as “head honcho” as it gets - would seem to agree.
In 2013, the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Thomas Insel, M.D. stated that the NIMH would no longer fund research projects that rely exclusively on DSM criteria due to its lack of validity.
(Insel, Thomas (29 April 2013). "Transforming Diagnosis". Director's Blog. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved 2013-09-02 here.)
As Insel says about the DSM, the official “bible” of psychiatry:
“The strength of each of the editions of DSM been “reliability” – each edition has ensured that clinicians use the same terms in the same ways. The weakness is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure. In the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever. Indeed, symptom-based diagnosis, once common in other areas of medicine, has been largely replaced in the past half century as we have understood that symptoms alone rarely indicate the best choice of treatment.”
OK, so that’s one guy. (Even if he was the Director of the NIMH.)
But surely someone else would be really offended at what we’re saying – say, a real insider in the world of psychology.
What about one of the guys who wrote an early edition of the DSM?
Here is Allen Frances, M.D.:
“Loose diagnosis is causing a national drug overdose of medication…There is…a topsy-turvy misallocation of resources: way too much treatment is given to the normal ‘worried well’ who are harmed by it; far too little help is available for those who are really ill and desperately need it…Psychiatry needs to be saved from rushing in where it should fear to tread. Normal needs to be saved from the powerful forces trying to convince us that we are all sick.”
- and he goes on:
“’…there is no definition of a mental disorder. It’s bullshit. I mean, you just can’t define it…these concepts are virtually impossible to define precisely...”
(Source: Wired Magazine, 12/27/2010 here)
Frances was the chairman of the DSM-IV Task Force and part of the leadership group for DSM-III and DSM-III-R.
He goes on to caution that the DSM-5 “is turning our current diagnostic inflation into hyperinflation by converting millions of ‘normal’ people into ‘mental patients’” in his book Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life.
- and Frances and Insel aren’t alone. By far.
For example, Frances’ book was endorsed by Marcia Angell, M.D. of the Harvard Medical School, who praises his account of “the apparent explosion in psychiatric disorders in the United States.”
So, what’s one potential remedy for this situation?
We kinda like this idea:
"...to propose a new diagnostic category for inclusion in the DSM...
409.00 Pervasive Labeling Disorder. The essential features of this mental disorder are:
an uncontrollable impulse, drive, or temptation to invent labels and apply them to other people, a repetitive pattern of trying to fit people into preconceived categories..."
- David A. Levy
2. It’s Not a “Real Science.” But it is. But it isn’t. But it is.
Psychology gets a lot of crap for not being a “real science.”
Some of that has been well deserved. (“Penis envy,” anyone?)
Psychology drives us crazy when it takes on an air of certainty and authority that it hasn’t earned yet. (“Trust me! I’m a doctor!”) Sometimes, confidence just isn’t justified, even when it’s demanded.
But there’s more to this picture than meets the eye.
Here’s a brief summary of the conversation:
“Psychology is a real science.”
“No, it isn’t. “Real science” means meeting five basic requirements: clearly defined terminology, quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and predictability, and testability.”
“Psychology meets those.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Yes, it does!”
“No, it doesn’t!”
“Yes, it does!”
We’ll stop there, but the actual debate continues.
Some of what can drive us crazy about psychology, when we trace the breadcrumbs back, appears to be secretly fueled by this argument.
From what we can tell, in some circumstances, both sides seem “right” about this. They’re just touching two different parts of the elephant, and thinking it’s the whole thing.
For example, some folks look at some of the quack nonsense that’s been peddled under the banner of psychology (phrenology, anyone?), and go for the jugular. Good for them.
Meanwhile, some psychologists (Timothy Wilson comes to mind) take great pains to meet every single one of those criteria mentioned above. There’s a rigor involved that should convince any fair-minded thinker who is open and willing to take a look.
But of course, not everyone is Timothy Wilson. The scope of everyone who deals in these realms - psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy, counseling, etc – it becomes pretty apparent, pretty quickly, that folks like Wilson are the exception rather than the rule, and sometimes “science” is more name-dropped than actually done.
But one thing we can all agree on: psychology is young.
We're talking still in diapers.
We understand how to build bridges pretty well. We understand the basics of geometry, trigonometry, calculus and more advanced mathematics really well. We even understand the basics of cells, atoms, molecules and so on extremely well. We understand physics well enough to be able to make a Rover travel 300 million miles through space and hit a target on Mars with the precision of a few meters.
We aren’t sure we’re completely done with potty training yet. (And don’t get the psychoanalysts started on potty training.)
Richard O’Conner, Ph.D., says it well:
"Imagine if we were in the state of science where we could reliably diagnose heart disease but knew nothing about the effects of exercise cholesterol, salt and fat, stress, and fatigue. Patients who were diagnosed would be grasping at all kinds of straws that might help them recover. Some would stop all exercise, some would exercise furiously. Some would withdraw from stressful situations. Some would take medication to reduce blood pressure without knowing that their unhealthy diet undoes any beneficial effect of medication. Many would die prematurely; some would get better accidentally; without good controlled scientific studies, medicine would not learn what was causing some to die, some to recover. This is where we are with depression."
It’s been a rough start. As every science was in the early days.
(And a quick note for any physics folks who might start feeling a little too big for their britches: remember the Ptolemaic system, which got replaced by Copernicus, which was made obsolete by Kepler and Newton, which got ousted by general relativity? Just to say: you didn’t exactly bullseye it from the start, either.)
Psychology is young, there’s plenty we don’t know, and there’s plenty it’s been embarrassingly wrong about. A read through The Unknown Mind by John Horgan – a rare voice of clarity on these matters – should convince anyone who gives it a chance.
But to be fair here:
What should we do…give up?
“Real scientists” who do the peer-down-the-nose-condescendingly thing seem to imply that every psychologist should either switch professions or commit hara-kiri. (OK, mathematicians, now you can be in charge of all psych wards. Let us know how that turns out.)
But here’s the other thing:
Math and physics are hard.
Psychology is harder.
Issues like human behavior, sanity, consciousness, happiness, the mind, relationships, crime, mental illness, mental health, emotional resilience, not to mention spirituality...
Trying to approach issues like these scientifically make studying spleen cells under a microscope look like kid’s stuff.
Sheldon, the boy physics genius from The Big Bang Theory, understands more about physics than everybody in the world. But humans baffle him. Constantly. (Sure, it’s a fictional show, but there’s a reason why it rings true, isn’t there?)
Maybe physics has had such great success in such a relatively short period of time because it’s actually easier to figure out. (It would be fun watching Sheldon’s reaction to that statement.)
At any rate…achieving a scientifically rigorous psychology is a challenge, and will continue to be.
As long as there’s a bit of humility in acknowledging what we don’t really know, and honesty about what passes the “science” test and what doesn’t, there isn’t a problem. We’ll make progress. This is stuff that can eventually be figured out.
That isn’t the real problem.
The real problem is when it tries to be what it isn’t.
3. It’s the Wild West Masquerading as an Astrophysics Lab
We’ve touched on the debate over psychology being a “real” science or not.
It’s a good conversation, all part of the necessary growing pains of a field finding its footing.
“All sciences have to pass through an ordeal
- Hans Eysenck
But the real trouble happens after psychologists get accused of not being “real scientists.”
For some good psychologists, who have the noble intention of wanting psychology to be a real science…that touches a nerve.
And sometimes they overreact.
This sometimes leads to one of two reactions: 1) forcing psychology into the same “hard science” mold as physics, chemistry, biology, etc; or 2) giving up on even trying to be scientific altogether.
In response to the jabs, snubs, snide remarks and insults about not being “real” scientists, in some cases, psychologists try to counter it (should we say “compensate”?) by modeling what they see other (“real”) scientists doing.
1. Pretend to know more than you do.
Speak with total confidence. Banish all doubt and uncertainty. Pronounce judgments with authority. Sneer at anyone who questions. Which might be OK when it’s been earned. But in the highly complex issues psychology goes after – depression, anxiety, sanity and so on – psychology hasn’t quite reached the “sneer” level just yet.
“Virtually all the research…has found that these professionals’ claims to superior intuitive insight, understanding, and skill as therapists are simply invalid. What our society has done, sadly, is to license such people to ‘do their own thing,’ while simultaneously justifying that license on the basis of scientific knowledge, which those licensed too often ignore.”
– Robyn M. Dawes, House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built On Myth
2. Invent jargon.
Never use a simple word when a complicated one will do. (“Fausse Reconnaisance” anyone?) Never speak clearly; always make a point in as abstrusely as possible. Make it difficult for folks to understand you because if they don’t understand you, it’s easy to pretend that you really know something they don’t. Whether you do or not.
3. Ignore a lot of what happens in the world; just pretend it doesn’t exist.
Science is a series of tests. (The quantifiable test, the reproducibility test, etc.) Only a small fraction of the universe passes those tests. The trick here? “Only the stuff that passes those tests are ‘real.’ Everything else isn’t real.”
This is something like looking at the world through a keyhole. Anything you can’t see through that keyhole, you pretend it doesn’t exist.
Example: B. F. Skinner, historical Harvard bigshot in the world of psychology, believed that there is no such thing as a “mind,” there are no such things as “thoughts.”
So yes, he passed the test of being “scientific.” But to do that, he had to sacrifice his “mind” and his “thoughts.”
So, you too, could pass the test of being “scientific” if you give up your “mind” and your “thoughts.”
But for most of us, that cost is a bit much.
“…the views promoted by The Psychology Industry…that people are incapable of thinking for themselves, taking responsibility for their own actions or living their own lives…considers and treats people as children who, regardless of age, experience, education or status must be protected, guided, sheltered, excused and disciplined…I find the prospect of this emerging new paternalistic society in which the ‘fathers’ (the ‘paters’) are the psychologists, whose knowledge is superior and whose power is absolute, to be intolerable. So, I find myself in the role of renegade, openly challenging the authority of my profession.”
- Dr. Tana Dineen, Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry Is Doing To People
5. Explain stuff solely by hijacking biology and chemistry.
We’ll dig into this more below.
So psychology might strain at times to match physics, math, chemistry and so on its rigor.
Of course, aiming to be scientific is a noble ideal (depending on how you define “scientific”) and we need to keep at it, however hard it might be.
But psychology will never out-physics physics, or out-math math.
Again, the problems psychology deals with are harder. Atoms sit still, in their own way, more easily then three-year-old boys do.
“I can calculate the movement of stars
but not the madness of men.”
- Isaac Newton
Psychology is dealing with matters that can’t be examined under a microscope, that can’t be cut out with a scalpel, that won’t fit in a test tube. When you’re trying to explain every kernel of human experience, you need something more powerful than a particle accelerator.
But forgetting this might sometimes lead the folks who study bias…
- to be biased themselves.
4. The Dirt Bias: A Warped View of the World
Again, there’s no small amount of pressure on psychology to prove that it’s a “real” science.
Fair enough. There should be pressure. Respect from “real” science needs be earned.
But sometimes this environment itself can sometimes create problems.
Humans are imperfect? Life is messy? People can sometimes be silly, petty, flawed, mistaken? What?
Yes. In this case, it might go something like this:
“Physicists, chemists, and biologists are seen as ‘real’ scientists. So if we act like them, we’ll be treated like real scientists too.”
This would be fine if psychologists were studying atoms, chemicals, or plants.
But the “subjects” here are humans. Real people. Us. And you can’t discover all there is to know about us – or even the most basic stuff, arguably – with merely a microscope or a telescope.
Different ball game. Different tools. Different level of complexity.
- which, if that is true, means this: if you decide to study people the same way you study atoms, chemicals, or plants, then you’ll need to prepare for pieces that don’t fit, or go missing, or belong to a different puzzle.
And if you force them to fit where they don’t, things will get warped.
And to some observers, some of the thinking in psychology today seems just like that: a bit warped.
A little syllogism:
Psychologists study bias (aka “skewed thinking.”) All humans can be biased. Psychologists are human. Therefore, psychologists can be biased, even though they study bias.
The culprit we’re getting at here is what we can call the “Dirt Bias”.
The “Dirt Bias” is a tendency these days is to stick closer to so-called “real” sciences – physics, chemistry and biology – and to veer away from more controversial, more mind-bending, more difficult areas such areas as philosophy, for example, that deal with aspects of human experience that you can’t put in a test tube or examine under a microscope.
It’s a tendency to study the dirt instead of the stars, because, well, it’s easier. (Or because studying dirt earns you more respect – and grant money – than those mushy-minded star-gazers.)
Dirt Bias can skew our thinking, stink up our personal philosophies and fog up our view of the world.
Let’s back up and dig a little deeper. (So we’re going to – ahem – dig…into Dirt Bias. Anyone? Is this thing on?)
Let’s look at how Dirt Bias can sometimes stink up our philosophy.
5. It wallpapers over fault lines, then builds.
Every so often on its valiant quest for knowledge, psychology stumbles across a deep chasm: a problem hundreds - even thousands - of years old. And it and seems unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
Maybe it’s even hidden, like a fault line, invisible on the surface, making it easy to stroll right by, oblivious to what’s beneath.
The fault lines we’re talking about are philosophical. They’re hidden ideas.
What is “physical” is “real.” What is not “physical” is “unreal.”
The above statements are metaphysical assertions. Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy.
Folks have been arguing about metaphysics for thousands of years.
How does this affect psychology?
Philosophical positions get baked into our worldviews, our maps of the world, sometimes secretly, without us being aware of it.
Without knowing it (can we say “unconsciously?”) a psychologist can assume an answer to a longstanding philosophical question and proceed based on that assumption.
This really comes into play in what we consider “real” and “phony.”
And it can lead us into some strange territories.
Chemicals, brains, and genes are all “real” while things like “thoughts,” “feelings,” “minds,” “ideas,” “values,” “concepts,” “principles” and so on are considered “unreal.”
What can be quantified is “real.” What can’t be quantified is “unreal.”
What can be measured is “real.” What can’t be measured is “unreal.”
What can be seen, touched, heard and so on is “real.” Anything we can’t directly see, touch, hear and so on isn’t “real.”
The brain is “real.” The “mind” is unreal.
Heart palpitations, blood pressure, adrenaline are “real,” but “feelings” are unreal.
And so on.
So a statistic – say, 79.47% - is “real.” But “love” is not real.
By this definition, a white blood cell is “real,” but the “love” that you feel for your family is not – or at least, it’s not anything that can be studied by science.
See where we’re going with this?
"If cognitive scientists wish to explain away Bach and Beethoven,
or dismiss love as a matter of pheromones and neurotransmitters,
then let them live on with their lives dismissed.
But I shall persist in my folly with love and beauty."
- William Irwin Thompson
Call it “scientism” or “scientific reductionism” or any number of things; at the core is the view that science alone gives us genuine knowledge, and “science” is defined as only the “hard” stuff like physics and chemistry. It’s science-as-religion, or science that’s based on what could be called “faith” or unexamined and unverified presumptions. (The irony – that life sends the hardest-nosed skeptics on a full 360 where they wind up right back at a system belief in something they can’t prove – isn’t lost on us.)
(Quick aside: the claim that “science alone gives us genuine knowledge” hasn’t itself been proven "by science." It's a philosophical claim.)
Or a different way of approaching it:
There’s the denotative meaning of something, and the connotative meaning.
Let’s take a drawing.
A denotative description of that drawing would be stuff like, “This was drawn with a pencil.” “It has shading.” “It’s not anatomically accurate.”
It’s “the facts.”
The connotative description of that same drawing: “That’s beautiful.”
Science is about facts. That’s great. Facts should be things that we could presumably all agree on, if we look carefully and honestly enough, and if the situation allows.
The interpretation of those facts is a different story. Some folks might think the drawing is beautiful; some might think the drawing is ugly. This is the connotative description – it’s how we interpret the facts.
Scientism invalidates connotative meaning.
Scientism - not real science - makes the unscientific claim that only denotative meaning is "real" or valid.
Let’s explore this further, and come at it from a different angle.
Let’s take a quick look at things, from the smallest to the largest.
Starting with the smallest:
Sub-atomic particles (physics, mind-blowingly super-tiny)
Atoms (physics, really tiny)
Molecules (chemistry, tiny)
Cells (biology, really small)
Creatures (biology, psychology – our size)
Groups of creatures (sociology – big groups)
The earth (biology, environmental science, physics, etc – huge)
The solar system, galaxy, etc (astrophysics – colossally massive beyond our comprehension)
This is a partial rough sketch, obviously, but the point is: there is a hierarchy, a spectrum, a multi-tiered system. It’s an unimaginably complex – systems within systems, system within worlds, and worlds and worlds within worlds within more systems…and so on.
But the idea itself is not complex. Ingredients come together to make up soup, which comes together to make up the meal, which comes together to make up a family social event, which come together to form a society, and so on.
There’s a “higher” and a “lower” (that is not, by the way, “oppressive” in any sense of the word, any more than molecules “oppress” electrons.) From smaller to bigger, there are levels that, as Ken Wilber would say, “transcend and include” each other.
So with this in mind, let’s ask a very basic question:
Why do I, ______ (insert your name here), do what I do?
A few popular answers:
Because of your genes. (Implication: you’re a puppet of your genes.)
Because of your environment. (Implication: you’re a product of the people & things around you.)
Because of a chemical imbalance. (Implication: you’re a victim to a bunch of chemicals sloshing around inside your skull.)
Here’s a suggestion: the answers above show at least some degree of Dirt Bias.
Meaning, they explain the higher by means of the lower.
According to this kind of thinking, there’s no such thing as a “school,” there’s merely a bunch of buildings with teachers and students.
There’s not even such thing as a building, there’s “merely” a bunch of bricks, wood, glass and concrete.
There’s no such thing as a “society,” there’s merely a large community of people.
There are no such things as thoughts, feelings, emotions, there’s merely genes, hormones, and chemicals in your brain.
There’s no such thing as a “person,” there’s merely a big bag of meat and bones with a bunch of chemicals sloshing around inside.
The error is trying to solve a problem by working on the wrong level.
“…no causal relationship has ever been established between a specific biochemical state of the brain and any specific behavior, and it is simplistic to assume it is possible…as in every other aspect of psychiatry, there are many highly speculative hypotheses, but no firm ones, and no proof that mood disorders have a biological basis.”
- Peter Breggin, M.D., Toxic Psychiatry
You can’t understand the route a bus takes through a city by studying the brakes, transmission, and carburetor of the bus.
You can’t fully understand the behavior of a particular animal by merely studying, say, their skin or liver cells. Or even their serotonin levels.
You can't fully understand a cell by examining an atom.
You can’t fully appreciate the works of Shakespeare if you dismiss them as “nothing but” groups of letters in the alphabet.
You can’t fully understand the Mona Lisa by merely examining the paint pigments.
And so on. You can't fully understand an organ, such as a liver, and how it functions within a body (eg to filter and detoxify blood) by merely examining liver molecules. You can't understand an economy by closely examining peoples’ livers.
But, some folks in the psychiatric world seem to insist that the way to understand human beings is to study biochemistry.
“Unchanged in mainstream psychiatry since 1920, and indeed since 1820, is the way in which biopsychiatrists have continually predicted a soon-to-be-found biological origin of personal distress.”
- Peter Breggin, M.D., Toxic Psychiatry
It’s the Dirt Bias at work: a "nothing but" mentality (humans are “nothing but” chemicals and genes sloshing around together, etc) implies that, because your thoughts and emotions are nothing but the burps and fizz that bubble up from brain chemicals, they are therefore irrelevant, unimportant, or somehow secondary, or at any rate, there's nothing you can do about them.
Humans are complex systems. Complex systems have many different tiers, levels, layers.
Tearing things down into the smallest pieces possible in order to understand how they work is one method that can work extremely well in some cases. But in the realm of psychology – humanity - it can’t be our only method.
Academic psychology, historically, has often studied one tier – say, the biological or chemical – and then tried to explain everything else – according to that.
It’s materialistic reductionism on speed.
And that can drive us nuts.
"Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry . . .
particle physics cannot predict the behavior of water,
let alone the behavior of humans.
- Philip Warren Anderson, Nobel Prize winner in Physics, 1977
"Right now, of course, most psychiatrists believe that the major mental disorders are biochemical, physiological, genetic. Now, I've been in this business long enough
to recognize that it's cyclical... these beliefs co-vary in time with the political climate of the culture."
- Roger Chistenfeld, Director of Research, Hudson River Psychiatric Center.
"There are many alternative reductionisms. We are nothing but a pack of idiosyncratic genes.
We are nothing but a pack of adaptations sculpted by natural selection. We are nothing but a pack of computational devices dedicated to different tasks. We are nothing but a pack of sexual neuroses. These proclamations...are all defensible, and they are all inadequate."
- John Horgan
So where does this line of thinking lead?
(assuming we’re still allowed to say “thinking” for now, and not “mere synapse firing…”)
If you follow it through to the end, it can lead to folks getting “hollowed out.”
The stuff that can’t be seen, heard, touched, measured, quantified, tested in double-blind experiments, peered at under a microscope…
That’s the good stuff.
To someone of this philosophical persuasion – let’s call them reductive materialists – only the “hard” stuff “out there” is real, while things like “meaning,” “happiness,” “love,” your “mind,” your “soul” and so on are all seen as things that are subjective, immeasurable, unquantifiable, and therefore unreal.
Taken to an extreme (or its logical conclusion), this can convert you and I into strangers inhabiting a foreign body in a meaningless world filled with random events for a little while, until our expiration date comes and our brief little adventure here is over.
Not exactly an inspiring vision of life. (Or an accurate one.)
Of course, all this stuff is arguable.
But that’s the point: believing that “the physical is real” and “what is not physical is not real” is a philosophical, metaphysical assumption. And a hotly debated one.
It’s a large and very unsettled debate in philosophy.
And in psychology, that debate can be bypassed. And often is. We often don’t “solve” philosophical problems as much as “blow past them, assume an answer, and move on.”
This might make us better scientists. But it can make us lousy philosophers.
"The dogma that 'mental diseases are diseases of the brain'
is a hangover from...materialism...It has become a prejudice
which hinders all progress, with nothing to justify it."
- Carl Jung (1948)
Or to say it another way…
It can make us lousy at explaining life.
6. It offers explanations that don’t explain much, [ start talking exclusively in terms of brains, genes, chemicals ]
We all have to explain life one way or another.
It’s our core life narrative. It’s our answers to The Big Questions. It’s our map of the universe and our place in it. It’s how we explain life to ourselves.
Not an easy thing to do, by the way. And not something we do perfectly all the time.
Psychology should help us with that.
It should help us make more accurate maps of the universe and our places in it. It should help us improve and refine our core life narratives. It should help us explain why we do what we do.
But sometimes, it does a lousy job at that.
It can even make things worse.
How? By offering explanations that really don’t explain much.
Here’s a sample:
“...Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. “She said, ‘Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and If it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven the car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.’”
The above is something that someone – a real person – apparently, actually said. Seriously.
(Patricia and Paul Churchland, two professors of philosophy at UC San Diego. Quoted from Larissa MacFarquhar, “Two Heads: A Marriage Devoted to the Mind-Body Problem,” The New Yorker (February 12, 2007), p. 69, here.)
Or another short sample…or really, a short fable. Let’s call it “The Fable Of Ben, the Future Psychiatrist.”
INT. DAY. First-grade classroom. Almost naptime.
Little Ben shoots a rubber band at Little Jenny.
Mrs. Knowles sees it happen, and asks him why he did it.
Little Ben replies: "Well, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and my dopamine levels needed lifting, so that’s why I did it.”
Little Ben gets sent to the principal’s office.
Many years later, grownup Ben – now a licensed psychiatrist - comes back to the school, and is asked why children do things like shoot rubber bands at each other.
He says, "Well, their serotonin levels have hit bottom, their brains are awash in glucocorticoids, their blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and their dopamine levels need lifting, so that’s why they do it.”
The audience claps madly, Ben is now congratulated and given lots of money, soon writes a bestseller and hits the lecture circuit.
Moral of the story: Some psychologists get away with explanations that wouldn’t work for a third-grader.
Both of these cases illustrate the Dirt Bias in action: they think explaining things on one level explains things on another level
This can drive us crazy, because we’re trying to navigate the world with inaccurate maps. Which is usually worse than having no map at all.
“I knew from my beginning studies – although only a college student, I was already reading psychiatric textbooks – that no one had found ‘bad brain cells’ as a cause of the psychiatric problems that were labeled schizophrenia, depression, or manic-depressive disorder. The hunt for a physical defect had been going on for centuries, with no success.”
- Peter R. Breggin, M.D., Toxic Psychiatry, former director of the Center for the Study of Psychiatry in Bethesda, Maryland
We can waste a lot of time trying to explain the Mona Lisa merely in terms of paint pigments.
And we can waste a lot of other folks’ time by foisting that bad map onto them.
“I spent a few years reading neurobiology and papers discussing the neural correlates of decision making – how the left brain does so and so, and which neurotransmitter does what – to little avail, as simple papers in empirical psychology devoid of a single biological statement showing the results of cohort experiments turned out to be vastly more predictive. How could biologists know less than statisticians? People tend to be overawed by the scientific appearance of biological theories…”
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb
So this might seem fine – granted, we need better maps of the universe, we need better core life narratives, we need better answers to The Big Questions – but the Dirt Bias and all its aftereffects can all take a more sinister turn when it mixes intermingles, mixes and compounds with big business.
When brains, genes, and chemicals sloshing around are the only things that are seen as “real,” while thoughts, values, ideas, minds are “unreal” phantoms that are really the puppets of the “real” puppetmasters…
- then this kind of flawed thinking often leads naturally to the idea that the “cures” or solutions need to work on, and can only work on that level, too.
Which means a bias toward overprescribing drugs.
Which leads us to…
7. The Drug-Industrial Complex That Pretends To Be Your Friend
Fact: Drug companies make a lot of money selling drugs.
Fact: People like making money.
Fact: Drugs are fast, easy, and convenient. (Compared to, say, years of psychotherapy or untangling a messy family situation.)
Fact: The story that often comes along with drugs – “this will fix the chemical imbalances that is causing problems” – sometimes offers a degree of hope and relief by itself.
Wild, unfounded, speculative theories:
Drug companies might occasionally sell a few more drugs than folks actually need.
Psychiatrists might prescribe a few more drugs than folks might actually need.
Ordinary folks might take a few more drugs than they really need. And finally…
We might sometimes use pills to try to solve problems that can’t be solved with pills.
"Rana Lee remembers the time she went to her doctor because her husband was beating her. The doctor, she told a congressional committee, prescribed 10 milligrams of Valium three times a day to calm me down...he refilled it for five years, with no questions asked.'"
- Washington Post Health, January 3, 1989
None of this is painting any particular individual involved in the situation as bad or compromised. Any drug that really works and alleviates unnecessary suffering? We have nothing - zero - against that.
What we’re pointing to is a system – a larger machine than the individual doctors and patients involved.
Call it the “drug-industrial complex.”
“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
- H. L. Menkin
Let’s back up a little.
Drug companies sometimes make claims like this: “More than 80 percent of depressed patients can be treated successfully by antidepressants.”
Stuff like that translates into big money.
In 2010, Americans spent more than $16 billion on antipsychotics, $11 billion on antidepressants and $7 billion for drugs to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
(Source: American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/06/prescribing.aspx)
The rate of antidepressant use in the U.S. among teens and adults (people ages 12 and older) increased by almost 400% between 1988-2008 and 2005-2008.
(National Center for Health Statistics, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.htm)
One in six American adults now take at least one psychiatric drug such as antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety medications
(2013 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey as quoted in Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/1-in-6-americans-takes-a-psychiatric-drug/)
Stats like these could go on for quite a while, but the point is, this is all mind-numbing in more ways than one.
Many folks have discussed the cozy, back-scratching relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and the medical industry.
We aren’t calling this a "vast conspiracy" with sinister motives.
We’re just stating the obvious: pills are big business. Lots of folks make lots of money creating and selling them. A lot of powerful interests are highly invested in keeping this gigantic machine running.
Our question here is whether the folks on the receiving end of all this – the folks handing over money for those pills – are benefiting also from this.
Are we getting healthier, happier, more fulfilled, more sane?
For folks who have genuinely benefitted – and there are some – wonderful. But are there others who haven’t?
And here’s a basic question: do the pills actually work?
In The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth, Irving Kirsch, PhD:
“What the published studies really indicate is that most of the improvement shown by depressed people when they take antidepressants is due to the placebo effect.”
So what does this mean?
That $18 billion worth of pills are no better than sugar pills?
Does it mean that we might be better off putting $19 billion into our pockets and taking sugar pills instead – assuming they could keep the placebo effect intact – because, after all, sugar pills don’t have side effects?
Kirsch also goes into a great amount of detail defending the above position, including this little gem:
“I discovered that approximately 40% of the clinical trials conducted had been withheld from publication by the drug companies that had sponsored them.”
So apparently, drug companies sometimes conduct “studies” and bury the results they don’t like while using the rest for marketing campaigns?
Is it all a gigantic hoax?
Surely not. Let’s look closer.
Michael Greger, M.D., a brave voice in the field who is not shy about calling out corruption, came to the same conclusion:
“When all the data – published and unpublished – were combined, antidepressants failed to show a clinically significant advantage over placebo sugar pills.” (How Not To Die)
“…antidepressants do seem to beat out sugar pills in reducing symptoms in the most severely depressed – perhaps about 10 percent of patients (although admittedly, this statistic also means that about 90 percent of depressed patients may be prescribed medication with negligible benefit.)”
But of course, there’s also the factor of drugs making things worse. The side effects, for example.
In 2007 the U.S. FDA proposed that makers of all antidepressant medications update the existing black box warning on their products’ labeling to include warnings about increased risks of suicidal thinking and behavior during the initial treatment. (https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/InformationbyDrugClass/ucm096273.htm)
And of course, in addiction to side effects, there’s also the “stigma” factor that we’ve already touched on. Meaning, how the act of taking drugs are interpreted by the person taking them.
A person experiences bit of depression. They talk to a doctor. The doctor prescribes an antidepressant medication. The patient interprets it this way: “If that doctor prescribed these drugs for me, there must be something seriously wrong with me.” Which might make the person more depressed, ashamed, anxious and so on, until “being seriously flawed” becomes part of their self-concept.
- while there might actually be nothing really going on, except a person experiencing a bit of depression.
This point here isn’t that anyone who is depressed should just ignore it. Let’s be clear about that. Anyone who is depressed to the point that it sticks around for a while should do something about it.
But prescribing drugs itself can sometimes come with its own form of baggage. And sometimes, it can make a minor problem worse. Molehill into a mountain, courtesy of easy medicine.
And there’s the chicken-egg logic.
Say I have a minor situation: I’ve been in a slump, feeling less-than-on-my-game for a few weeks or so. From there, it’s easy to diagnose someone with a “disorder,” and then give them pills to “treat” it. And if I have a “disorder” that’s being treated with medication, well then, it must be pretty serious. And since it’s serious, then I really must need the pills. And since I’m taking pills, this much mean the “disorder” is real. Which must mean there’s something really wrong.
Although, quite possibly, there isn’t. Maybe there’s nothing really wrong. Maybe it’s just life. Or really, maybe it’s nothing sugar pills couldn’t fix just as well, or someone less prone to slapping labels ending in “disorder” on people.
Again, this isn’t to discourage anyone from doing anything that’s helping them. The goal here is to shed some light on the situation – this “situation” being possibly unintended consequences of all these pills flying around.
But of course, many folks – both inside “the machine” and outside of it – seem oblivious to the entire idea of the prescription itself has on your core life narrative, and how your core life narrative might affect, say, your depression.
"With these antidepressants, you have to understand that we really don't know what we are doing. We know these drugs work, but we don't know exactly how, and each one is a little different."
- Dr. Ronald A Rubin
"...some would argue that our present use of psychotropic drugs
is just as flawed, in that we don't make patients better -
we just succeed in preventing them from bothering us."
- Frank Vertosick, M.D.
“Loose diagnosis is causing a national drug overdose of medication.”
- Allen Frances, M.D.
“…even if schizophrenia were largely genetic in origin, it would in no way follow that drugs – or any biological, as opposed to social, treatment – would necessarily be the most effective therapy.”
- R. C. Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin, Not in Our Genes (1984)
Of course, this is a huge and complex debate. And once again: we aren’t wanting to oversimplify, undercut anything that’s genuinely working for anyone, or malign an entire industry if it’s genuinely helping folks.
But clearly, for a lot of folks, there’s good reason to stay frosty and keep our guard up.
There are many different factors that play into conditions (like depression, for example) other than purely brain chemistry: Relationships. Work. Habits – especially bad ones like abusing drugs, alcohol, pornography and so on. Certain choices in life, for example, getting involved in dicey stuff. Meaning and purpose or lack thereof. Spirituality. Your answers to The Big Questions. And so on.
“Brain chemistry” can be an easy explanation, and even convenient at times. But Dirt Bias might lead us to answers and explanations that offer us relief, are easy to understand, convenient, flattering, and wrong.
And we often resort to the two words – “brain chemistry” – as if it’s the final and ultimate end-cause of all.
“Brain chemistry” might very well be just one link out of many in a whole chain of causes.
After all, if say, “flawed brain chemistry” causes depression, then what caused the “flawed brain chemistry”?
“…the biopsychiatrists, without discussing it, usually assume that the brain is the egg from which the chicken – mental disorder – is born. They search for signs of hyperactivity in the dopamine system of schizophrenics without acknowledging that if they find it, it could be the normal response of a normal brain to the prolonged expression of an intense emotional state.”
- Peter R. Breggin, M.D., Toxic Psychiatry
To emphasize the above: “…it could be the normal response of a normal brain to the prolonged expression of an intense emotional state.”
This is a topic we plan to continue exploring.
But for folks looking for alternatives: things like good therapy, meditation, exercise, improving your relationships and so on might be worth a look. They’re free, don’t have long lists of side effects, don’t require prescriptions and can be pretty likely to improve your life in other ways.
They are things that can really improve life.
They don’t have a multi-billion-dollar industrial-complex marketing machine pushing them.
But we’re working on it.
“Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak,
men mistook magic for medicine;
now, when science is strong and religion weak,
men mistake medicine for magic.”
- Thomas Szasz
8. Half of Psychology Doesn’t Know What the Other Half is Doing.
OK, that’s not totally fair.
Let’s refine the sentence above: a lot of psychologists (psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, etc) know something about what the others are up to. They just disapprove.
The situation looks something like this:
“Each day, hundreds of thousands receive talk therapy under a bewildering variety of names. The money spent on therapy each year adds up into the billions of dollars, but this outlay pales in comparison to the investment of human trust at stake in these encounters. Americans look to sincere and well-intentioned therapists when they are most disoriented and most deeply troubled.”
- Ethan Watters and Richard Ofshe, Therapy’s Delusions: The Myth of the Unconscious and the Exploitation of Today’s Walking Wounded.
But what does this really look like?
Well, if we were to somehow gather representatives from every walk of psychology into one building, it would probably look something like the United Nations but with no interpreters: a mob of different worldviews and agendas and a lot of difficulties communicating.
It’s a tower of psychobabble.
“A book published in 1970 described more than 250 different kinds of therapies being practiced at that time. The number has possibly doubled since then.”
– Crazy Therapies, Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich
If you’d drink enough beers with them to the point that they’d start telling you the truth, it might go something like this:
Psychiatrists think the Jungians are nuts. Jungians can sometimes think psychiatry is soulless pill-pushing. Behaviorists think Freudians are soft-minded storytellers. Freudians think behaviorists are ivory-tower elitists. And so on. Social psychologists, cognitive-behaviorists, addiction counselors, existential psychoanalysts, Adlerians, bodywork specialists, transpersonal psychologists, humanistic psychologists, inner child folks, family and couple therapists, Adult Children workshops, and so on, all have some less-than-flattering opinions of the other folks.
Again, we're painting with a broad brush here, but the main point sticks. We could keep going, but we’ll stop there. If this was a family, it would be a highly dysfunctional family.
“For the most part the Freudians, the existentialists, the Adlerians, and the behaviorists continue to talk past each other.”
- Ernest Becker
But it is a “family” of sorts. Although they often face different problems, work in different environments and operate with different maps of the world and their places in it…all of the groups mentioned above operate to some degree under the banner of “psychology,” broadly speaking.
At least, that’s what it looks like to many outsiders.
But let’s be nice. Instead of “tower of psychobabble,” let’s call it “a highly diverse bunch of really nice folks.”
Some folks like Timothy Johnson are working hard to conduct rigorous, strictly controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed research that passes the tests of “scientific.” Other folks like Martin Seligman are working hard to figure stuff out that affects real people who are living real lives that are outside of a college campus. Other therapists, counselors and social workers seem to wish more folks in academia would study stuff that’s a bit more relevant to their everyday experience, because they live out in areas where academia doesn’t reach.
The above is, of course, a quick and dirty sketch. Not entirely fair perhaps, but we’re painting with a broad brush here.
But again: there aren’t raging debates in engineering over how to build a bridge that will support a certain amount of weight.
But there is a lot of debate in psychology over everything, bottom to top.
Even the definition of the word “psychology” is up for grabs. (Literally, “science of the soul”? The “science of human behavior”? The “study of the human mind”? Do “minds” exist at all? How about “human nature”?)
Again, it’s a young “science” and there’s plenty to sort out. Everyone’s probably doing the best they can. We aren’t pointing fingers. Well, not completely.
But we are saying that sometimes this can drive us a bit crazy.
To the folks on the other side of all this, and don’t follow all the various schools, debates, worldviews and so on, it can be a disorienting and chafing experience.
A Freudian will probably start looking for fixations and childhood traumas;
A Jungian will probably dig for dreams, archetypes, complexes, etc;
A psychiatrist will probably look for a "neurochemical imbalance" (etc) and write prescriptions;
A Behaviorist (old-school variety) will work on training us, circus-seal fashion, to change our habits;
A Cognitive-Behaviorist will train us (circus seal) to change our habits and thoughts;
A Rogerian will probably listen to us very attentively;
A Social Psychologist will probably point out errors and biases in our thinking;
A Humanist will focus on our potential to be more than what we are now;
An Existentialist will focus on our core human predicament;
A Family Therapist will dig into our screwed-up relationships;
A Transpersonal Psychologist will try to expand our awareness;
A Synthesist will work their own blend of pureed casserole of all of the above.
And so on.
And this doesn’t even touch on alternative therapies.
“…reasoned, traditional therapy lost its mind in our time.”
- Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD.,
professor of psychology, Stanford University,
former president of the APA
Again, the reality is messier than the sketch above, so the above rough sketches aren’t totally fair, and practically anything that anyone says on any of these topics can be argued about for a long, long night.
That said, the key point seems to hold: each breed of therapist has been trained in their own specialty, and in general tends, in general, to view things from that perspective.
To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
To a psychologist with a degree, the world is their patient.
This can drive us crazy when, for example, someone would benefit from a short-term intervention, but winds up in the hands of a neo-Freudian who winds up diving into his the depths of childhood wounds.
Or the opposite – say a person is suffering from valid traumas that really happened in their childhood and is affecting their current quality of life, but winds up in the hands of a short-term intervention-specialist who gives them Band-Aids for bullet wounds.
“One man’s food is another man’s poison.”
You don't go to a plumber for help with your electricity; you don't go to a car mechanic if your toilet is overflowing.
In the same way, when many ordinary folks go to a psychologist, they don’t know what they’re getting. Sometimes it’s hard to know which one is a car mechanic and which is a plumber.
And it can drive them a little nuts.
"The fragmentation of therapies has led
to an almost total chaos in the process of selecting a therapist,
understanding what to expect of therapy,
and evaluating the quality of one's therapy.
More and more people are seeking therapy in all the wrong places,
from the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, and with the wrong expectations."
- Willard Gaylin, M.D.
9. It Has a Negative Orientation: "Healing Wounds" and “Feeding Ghosts”
In its earlier days, psychology put folks into two broad categories:
1) folks were either “wounded” to some capacity (which meant suffering from some form of disorder, illness, neurosis, etc), or
2) folks were “less wounded.”
(There weren’t many folks in #2.)
Psychology – especially in the realms of therapy and counseling – has traditionally worked as an illness-driven model. There’s illness at the center, and from there, it’s just a matter of how near or far from the center you are.
Not exactly an inspiring vision of life.
If you’re “wounded,” you can aspire to be, well, “less wounded” – or if we really want to go wild, “average.”
But you achieve the outstanding status of “average,” then…
- well, psychology had little to offer you.
Freud especially showed a distinct lack of vision beyond ailments:
“Love and work…work and love, that’s all there is.”
- Sigmund Freud
(Freud was never mistaken for Tony Robbins. Not even once.)
So, that was the life map psychology offered: you’re either sick or wounded in some way, or, well, you write people parking tickets all day and then go home and go to sleep. Then rinse and repeat. Ad infinitum.
This was especially the case for exploring “childhood wounds.”
Some therapies consist of healing certain issues by examining childhood traumas.
Fair enough. Some problems truly are rooted in childhood, and the best way to get relief from them is to uncover them, bring them out of the shadows of memory into full awareness, fully expose them, examine them, sort through them until all the power they’ve had to affect the present has dissipated and they don’t bother you anymore.
But of course, us humans being the curious and mischievous creatures we are, we always seem to take something good and push it beyond the point where it becomes too much.
This is the case with searching for childhood wounds.
If we have only one model as “the cur – umm, treatment for suffering,” then we’ll tend to go back to it again and again whenever we need relief.
Sometimes it’s pills. Other times, it can lead to chasing ghosts.
Digging through past trauma can sometimes be fruitful, up to the point that the trauma gets healed.
But some therapies (psychologists, counselors, etc), using that as their sole model for healing, push it far beyond that point. It can become an ongoing, never-ending, ceaseless hunt for, dredging up of, and over-examining past events. You could almost get the impression that every past event was significant, every experience was traumatic, and you’d have been better off if nothing had ever happened at all.
You can also start to wonder if the present moment is really best spent going over past moments. (Will future moments be spent going over the present moment? Where does this end?)
Sometimes “looking into the past” can become a lifestyle. There is an endless series of events that happened in the past. All of them can be interpreted as potentially “traumatic” and therefore in need of processing.
There are times to examine the past and deal with its effects, such as when it continually imposes itself on and interferes with the present.
And there are times to let go of the past and move on.
If you fall and scratch a knee. It's good to take a moment, check the wound, clean it, maybe put a bandage on it. From there, it will heal on its own. Unless you keep falling and re-scratching it, or keep picking at it.
Some wounds heal naturally. And it's very possible that some "childhood wounds" – assuming we aren’t re-traumatizing ourselves - will heal naturally on their own, and you don’t need anything beyond that point.
And then there’s the opposite. Bullet wounds, for example, won’t heal on their own. You have to remove the bullet.
Discerning which is which requires genuine expertise on a case-by-case matter.
But either way, it’s a problem when there’s no goal line to cross.
When do you cross the over from being “wounded” to being “healed”?
And further: when do you cross the goal line from merely being “healed” or average to living beyond average, to exceptional, to truly living, flourishing? Who wants to be “average” when it comes to life?
"Instead of teaching victimized people
how to become strong and move on with their lives,
they encourage clients to adopt the label of 'abuse survivor'
and endure a prolonged, self-effacing victimization status
for a period of years or even a lifetime."
- Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D.
The same sort of thing can happen with the hunt for ulterior motives.
Therapy – especially the old psychoanalytic breeds – can be an endless digging for ulterior motives, and more sub-ulterior motives under that, and endless layers of even more sub-sub-ulterior motives beneath that…ad infinitum.
Peel the onion, the saying goes. And keep peeling. And there’s always more to peel. It’s as if you are slowly closing in on some core, deepest motivation, which must surely be pretty awful. (But luckily, you never actually reach it, which might be the upside of endless therapy. Why are we doing this again?)
Of course, this whole process can become exhausting. Do you ever reach a point where you have, well, pure motives?
Does such a thing even exist?
“Psychoanalysis is confession without absolution.”
- G. K. Chesterton
Not in the eyes of some schools.
And it can drive us crazy.
But luckily, some of this has recently started changing for the better.
Maslow eventually launched Humanistic Psychology, which offered a positive orientation (the “average” can aim for “self-actualization”), Charles Tart and others launched Transpersonal Psychology, which is loosely defined as the study of development beyond conventional, personal or individual levels, and more recently, Martin Seligman helped ignite Positive Psychology, which is health-centered.
So there is hope for the future.
Maybe even enough for us to move on from the past.
And then we can get on with “the real business of life.”
10. It can try to bypass “the real business of life.”
Thoreau has a phrase: “…shirking of the real business of life.”
What is the “real business” of life?
This question could start a long discussion, but for now, we’ll keep it reigned in.
We can learn something here from movies.
In movies, the hero or heroine starts with a problem. Something they want.
They struggle with the problem, and either succeed, fail, or wind up somewhere in between.
Let’s take a story most of us know: “Titanic.”
But let’s give it a twist: let’s imagine that Rose has her own personal modern psychiatrist.
Early in the movie, Rose no doubt would have been diagnosed with some “disorder” or another, probably several. (Because, well, that’s how it works.)
Then – remember the scene where she first meets Jack, at the back of the boat? Rose likely would have been institutionalized. After all, she was “suicidal.”
She probably would have been prescribed some form of antidepressant or antianxiety medication.
Now she has a stigma attached to her. She has a “disorder” (or more likely, several.) She’s probably being medicated for it. She’s had a near-suicide attempt. All of which means that her life is probably wrapped up to some degree in overcoming her condition. And her “condition” must be pretty serious; otherwise, all this wouldn’t be happening, right? (That’s the chicken-egg logic.) So overall, she’s probably thinking that something’s pretty seriously wrong with her. And there’s no real end in sight.
She interprets her dissatisfaction with her current life satisfaction not as being forcibly trapped in a stifling, soul-crushing, shallow life where she would be unable to be and become herself…but as some form of bad “brain chemistry.”
And not needing any more drama or excitement to add to her already full plate, or because she doesn’t want to burden him with her problems, she ignores Jack.
(Even if she would head downstairs after dinner for some beer and rowdy dancing, that beer probably wouldn’t mix too well with the meds. OK, is this thought experiment depressing enough yet?)
From there, she quietly eats dinners and breakfasts, retires with the ladies to make small talk, gets on her lifeboat after the iceberg hit, and lives from then on in the smothering embrace of her mother and Cal.
Of course, this isn’t the worst possible scenario. (The “worst” would probably be Rose jumping off the back of the boat in the beginning.)
But it’s not something you’d want to watch a movie about.
To be fair to the unfortunate psychologist in this scenario…faced with a strong-willed, secretly miserable and even suicidal young woman in a seemingly hopeless situation – not to mention her mother, Cal, and all the forces of the entire society-at-large aligned with “fixing” her – what would you do? Just to say - we aren’t implying that there’s some easy “answer” that everyone’s missing.
But the point still remains: her moments with Jack, the leap off the lifeboat, her memories of “the Heart of the Ocean”…never would have happened.
In the real movie, Rose made strong choices. She made mistakes and learned from them. She struggled and felt pain, took risks and accepted the consequences. She grabbed life with her own hands. In a way, arguably, she made major, life-changing progress in “becoming herself.”
And this chapter in her life became a great, moving story.
No doubt, the path Rose traveled was difficult and painful. It involved terrible ordeals and mighty inner struggles.
But the beauty of that struggle touched millions. She forged herself, defined her own path, lived.
The point here isn’t that everyone should leap off lifeboats, dump their fiancé, pose nude, or abandon antidepressants at every turn. We also aren’t saying that if someone is suicidal, we should just leave them alone and hope for the best. (Ideally, the psychologist would have been able to uncover all the factors that drove her to that point and helped with her real struggle, as good ones do.)
The point is that psychology can sometimes – sometimes – encourage a person to bypass "the real stuff" of life.
Sometimes we really should struggle with ourselves.
Out of this struggle can come great novels, great paintings, great music, life-changing, life-defining choices and more.
If Homer, Shakespeare or Tolstoy had been told that all their thinking was merely brain chemistry, how much great art would have never been created?
Take even Thoreau, the “real business of life” guy himself.
He decided to go live by himself in the woods for a year, to think and write and just figure stuff out. What would your average psychologist have said about that?
Here’s safe guess: a flurry of disorders, a flurry of pills, get back in line, Henry. Pay your taxes and don’t be so grumpy about it.
There’s a worldview that comes along with happy pills, a story that comes along with them: “this will fix the chemical imbalances that cause the problems.” This narrative can abort the hard digging that great art and life is made of.
If thinking, after all, is seen a mere meaningless brain fizz, then there’s no need to, you know, sit down and really think hard about stuff.
But here’s another angle: thinking isn’t merely meaningless brain fizz.
And not thinking hard can be a recipe for becoming a drone, a hollow talking-point-reader, a useful idiot in the hands of whoever is best able to put carrots in front of us and sticks behind. You don’t spend a year alone in the woods, and you don’t write a great book, either.
Hard thinking, soul-searching, introspection, wracking your brains, exploring life for yourself, digging deep into yourself and coming up with your own answers…that takes moxie.
That’s the real stuff of life.
Hitchcock said “drama is life with the dull parts cut out of it.”
A character who struggles with themselves – has a character arc – is the heart of drama.
This makes a character struggling with themselves the most crucial part of life.
For most folks, psychology should encourage that.
Or at least avoid discouraging it.
OK. So, Where Do We Go From Here?
These have been a few things about psychology that drive us crazy.
Just knowing these 10 areas and keeping our guard up against them can help fend off at least some of the crazymaking.
But instead of just griping and complaining, can we take a turn that’s, well…more positive?
One reason why all this drives us crazy because there seems to be so much potential.
Truly understanding the full human experience is an awesome, intimidating, and inspiring challenge. It’s no wonder we’ve come so short more than a few times. This stuff is hard.
But if we start getting better at it, it can be pretty great.
So, yes, we’re hard on psychology. We care, and we want to see it become what it can be.
But first, a quick point:
Don’t mistake all the griping above for something it isn’t.
Let’s be really clear about what we didn’t say above.
None of the above says that various psychological conditions aren’t “real.” Depression, anxiety, stress and so on are very real. None of the above says that everyone should just automatically stop taking any medication they’re on. None of the above is saying that we all just need to suck it up, do our jobs, and stop thinking about this stuff.
What we are saying is pretty simple. Think about stuff. Face stuff. Observe yourself. Study yourself. Allow yourself not to know stuff. Don’t settle for easy solutions that don’t work. Don’t settle for explanations that don’t actually explain much. Ask big questions. Let yourself get uncomfortable. Explore uncertainties. Feel stuff. Try to articulate what’s inside you. Try to put words to your feelings. Try to make sense of yourself, yourself.
There are times to trust experts, and there are times to distrust experts. There are times to doubt yourself, and there are times to trust yourself. But getting to know yourself better – that’s a goal worth aiming for at all times.
That said…there really is a bright side to all this.
The bright side is that there’s so much room for improvement.
"Today's psychologists are observing and gathering material
from which a future science will emerge."
- Ayn Rand
What if we could take everything that drives us crazy about psychology and turn it around on itself?
What if it was able to diagnose various inner conditions with precision?
Goodbye, vague questionnaires and symptom-fishing that read like newspaper horoscopes.
“Precision medicine” is a movement that transformed cancer diagnosis and treatment, and Thomas Insel, former NIMH Director, wants to apply that same precision to psychology. Go, Dr. Tom. (Source: NIMH, "Improving Diagnosis Through Precision Medicine" here)
Yes, it’s basically fantasy at this point. But it’s something to aim for.
What if psychology wasn’t biased against spirituality?
“Real scientists are atheists.”
That’s the typical idea. The only thing is, it isn’t true.
Psychology, in an effort to be “real science,” has with notable exceptions (Jung, Frankl, Maslow, etc) developed an allergy to anything “spiritual.”
We can’t entirely blame them. Spirituality is the nuclear reactor of controversy (one of the reasons why psychology is harder than physics). Of a billion people, maybe two of them will totally agree on spiritual issues, and one of them will be lying.
But nobody said this would be easy.
Psychology needs to step up to the task. Ignoring a huge swath of the human experience – which many humans report as the very front and center of existence – isn’t a good idea when your job is to study humans.
Instead of merely flirting around the edges, psychology needs to Go There. Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychologies have gotten off to a start, have some things to say, and should be heard.
What if psychology avoided fringe silly, absurd, nonsense spirituality?
So, one error is rejecting all spirituality (above), directed toward the atheistic wing of the group.
The opposite error, coming from the opposite overly-tolerant wing, is embracing everything that anyone considers “spiritual,” no matter how nonsensical.
So yes, all this might ruffle a few feathers. It might not be polite to talk about. But since when has science ever cared about being polite?
One reason why much of the mainstream might be so allergic to spirituality is that it lumps a lot of nonsense, pseudo-spiritual speculations and outright insanity together with halfway sane, thoughtful, insightful, reasoned, evidence-based, observable, and even occasionally testable stuff. It gets apparently lumped all together as one single package and then rejected. From there, what you’re left with is a musty pile of full-on atheism.
The idea here is to avoid going full baby-bathwater.
Separating that baby from this swirling, tainted bathwater isn’t easy. But again, nobody said this would be easy.
There is a lot of nonsense that passes under the banner of spirituality, yes. Just like there is a lot of nonsense that has passed under the name of science. (Miasmatic theory of disease, anyone? Anybody need a good bleedin’?)
The point is: there is “bad” science. There is “good” science. There is “bad” spirituality. There is “good” spirituality.
The smart move here isn’t rejecting entire categories of human experience (like spirituality.)
The smart – harder, yes, but smarter – move is sorting the “bad” from the “good.” The accurate from the inaccurate.
The real from the phony.
We’re working on it.
Not an easy job. But we, your lovable, cuddly LiveReal Agents, are doing the best we can.
“Acceptance of a psychospiritual approach would have put much of psychiatry out of business. It still would.”
- Peter R. Breggin, M.D., former consultant with NIHH, former director of the Center for the Study of Psychiatry, Toxic Psychiatry
What if psychology embraced its heritage of philosophy?
Psychology, the story goes, was born out of philosophy. It was a great idea: instead of sitting around in our togas, arguing endlessly and getting nowhere…let’s go find out.
Let’s run some tests. Do some experiments.
Let’s go see for ourselves.
But of course, then we become obsessed with dopamine levels, double-blindedness, Dirt Bias and so on – not to mention keeping up with the Jonese – er, physics department…and next thing you know, we’ve completely forgotten about the whole “philosophy” thing.
But real philosophy can be as rigorous as science. (Heck, the scientific method was born out of philosophy > a means for finding truth > epistemology. “Gravity” is hard science, but also an idea. And “ideas” are the stock and trade of philosophy.)
Psychology will never beat physics on its own ground, but maybe that’s not the ground it should be fighting on.
If psychologists got solid grounding in rigorous philosophical thinking as part of their basic training, they would ideally be able to spot and correct philosophical errors that crept into their thinking. (#5 above.)
And this would have one added benefit: putting academic philosophy departments to work doing something that isn’t utterly useless and a complete waste of time, which apparently hasn’t been tried in a long time.
What if drug companies weren’t allowed to bury test results they didn’t like?
Call us crazy. (They’d like to, wouldn’t they? Good for business.)
Drug company scientists should either do real research as real scientists, or admit to being pimped out to a sales department. But they can’t have it both ways.
There is and should be a natural, healthy tension between folks who create drugs and want them to work and folks who test them to see if they really do work or not. Just like there is a healthy tension between movie-makers and movie critics. We need both.
Corruption happens. But we need to do whatever we can to minimize and eliminate it. The division between these two forces has to be clear and unbreakable.
Failing at this ruins it for everybody – all of us – in the long run.
What if the most severe cases were given the most treatment, and the least severe cases were given the least?
This is a major point by Dr. Frances, in Saving Normal: “There is also a topsy-turvy misallocation of resources: way too much treatment is given to the normal ‘worried well’ who are harmed by it; far too little help is available for those who are really ill and desperately need it. Two third of people with severe depression don’t get treated for it, and many suffering from schizophrenia wind up in prisons.”
What if psychology truly embraced and adopted a positive orientation?
Again, this is an area where Positive, Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychologies have gotten off to a good start. Mapping and encouraging the exploration of the higher realms of human nature…at some point in the future, hopefully, it will look absurd that it took us so long to figure out.
What if the various schools of psychology could quick bickering and agree on a universal, objective model of human nature?
What is “human nature”?
Ask a hundred psychologists, you get a hundred different answers. Evolutionary psychology and others definitely have some things to say, but well, we aren’t there yet. What it is, how it works, how to fix it, and what it’s capable of? Someone should add this to their “to-do” list.
What if psychology was able to be a source of sanity and clarity instead of worry and confusion?
OK, now we’re just being silly.
What if psychology truly explored the placebo effect – otherwise known as the mind’s ability to heal itself – and understood it?
If you ask us, this is a game-changer that’s hidden in plain sight.
It’s often used these days to dismiss stuff (eg “that drug only worked because of the placebo effect.”) But reversing that, and using it against itself – meaning, really understanding how the placebo effect truly works – which nobody really seems to fully understand – if you ask us, there’s gold in them thar hills.
What if psychology was able to account for everything in human experience – rejecting nothing – and incorporate it into a truly scientific framework of human nature?
Right now, psychology rejects a great deal of human experience and looks at much of the world through the keyhole of Dirt-Bias science. That’s understandable, like we’ve said – we want rigor, clarity, and truth.
But not at the expense of ignoring a massive amount of what happens in the world.
We could keep rambling, but we’ll stop for now.
These are exciting times.
We are on the verge of a great new frontier of vast, unexplored realms. A sea of mystery and unanswered questions invites us to set sail.
In the meantime, it will probably keep driving us a little crazy.
“Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you,
opening new channels, not of trade,
but of thought.”
- Henry David Thoreau