A site on the future of psychology

Update and Blog Transfer

Hi All,

  As you may know, I consulted with Psychology Today and was given the opportunity to start a blog there, based on the content of this blog. I am in conversation with my fellow bloggers regarding the future of this blog. The new blog is called Theory of Knowledge and is available via this link:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-knowledge.

Also, I wanted to let folks know that on December 12th, I was on Virginia Insight, a local NPR radio show talking about the unified theory. Here is the link to that:

 http://www.jmu.edu/wmra/pgm/insight/VI121211.mp3

Finally, I have found it useful to be able to access the unified theory book’s chapters, so here they are:

Preface

RacingHorses

ProblemofPsych

BIT

Matrix

The Justification Hypothesis

The Tree of Knowledge

Defining Psyc

UnifiedPsychther

FifthJP

Epilogue

Hope every has a happy holiday season…

Gregg

A Guiding Template for Conducting a Semi

On the Origin of Language

What follows is a blog post from Eric La Freniere (lafrenea@dukes.jmu.edu), who is a JMU Graduate Student in rhetoric and communication interested in the evolution of language and human consciousness. We had some interesting exchanges and realized that we shared very similar ideas regarding the nature of culture and human consciousness, connecting the dots from his view of rhetoric and my view of justification. He shared with me his synopsis on the origin of language and slides and I thought they might make for an interesting blog post. Note that Justification Hypothesis is a theory of how the problem of social justification would have altered human self-consciousness and culture. It is not, of course, a theory of the evolution of language itself. This is what Eric is trying to work out.

 Gregg

Preface to a General Theory of the Origin of Language as a Function of Brain Hemispheric Interaction.

Language is a signaling system that involves the abstraction of information from a gestalt field for purposes of representation and communication. But language is contingency-based, as opposed to instinctive, i.e. it allows for the spontaneous creation of recombinative information and thus novel responses across the brain of an individual organism, as opposed to across generations within the gene pool of an entire species. How did language evolve?

By just over 500 million years ago, brains had evolved, and the extrusion of eyes kicked off the “Cambrian explosion,” a positive feedback-driven proliferation of organic complexity involving the emergence of most of the major animal groups existing today—including fish, from which all vertebrates evolved. Fish have non-overlapping vision and optic nerves that cross to connect each eye with the opposite side of the fish brain, which has no left-right neural bridges.

Fish engage their environments according to left-right preferences; for example, fish typically respond more quickly when predators are first seen through one eye, and they forage for food more efficiently when using the other eye (Giorgio Vallortigara has done basic research here). In other words, one eye and its contralateral half of the brain focus on what might be called “retreat” perceptions and behaviors, while the other eye and half of the brain focus on what might be called “approach” perceptions and behaviors. We may say that the retreat brain is neurologically geared towards recognizing changes in gestalt fields to generate more rapid “fight-or-flight” responses, while the approach brain is neurologically geared towards abstracting particular objects to generate less rapid “feed or f*ck” responses. (Note that in its basic form, abstraction simply means to draw or take away, to remove or isolate).

For 500 million years, evolution wrung as much adaptability—as much intelligence—as possible out of the animal brain. Yet for virtually all that vast stretch of time, there is no evidence of tool use or culture, and thus no evidence of language. Nonhuman signaling systems, including complex affective displays, seem largely incapable of recombination; they cannot, in and of themselves, generate novel responses to selective pressures.

Finally, just 2 ½ million years ago, a group of tool-making primates (H. habilis) emerged. They had big brains, but their flaked stone tool kit remained unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years. Then a new group of even bigger-brained primates (H. erectus) began reworking their own stone tools with an eye toward shape and symmetry—but other than that, again, no change for hundreds of thousands of years.

It is unlikely that language was involved in the production of these Lower Paleolithic technologies; the lack of novelty over time suggests a lack of abstract or representational recombination. We are probably looking at the maximum adaptability or intelligence possible through genetic evolution alone: a more-or-less instinctive, tool-using “culture” made possible by a perfect storm of organic factors such as binocular vision, bipedalism, an opposable thumb, complex vocalization, and a big brain. By the Middle Paleolithic, the increasingly expensive primate big brain experiment seemed to have reached its gradualist conclusion (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis).

 But evidence indicates that punctuated equilibrium intervened: a hopeful monster was born (Homo sapiens sapiens). Archeologists have characterized the Upper Paleolithic, the period beginning about fifty thousand years ago, as the “creative explosion.” Stone was fashioned into novel shapes for novel purposes, and art emerged, along with the mastery of fire, human burial, and the bone needle for sewing. Language had clearly arrived, but how?

 Stephan Gould’s hopeful monster idea suggests that a point mutation (a single base nucleotide replacement in the DNA sequence) could have enabled the emergence of language across the hemispheres of the already-lateralized proto-human cerebral cortex. How did a single mutation make such a dramatic difference? According to chaos theory’s infamous “butterfly effect,” even a tiny initial change within a complex system can result in dramatic differences in eventual outcome. The proto-human brain was the most complex system on the planet; a single mutation could have snowballed change across its entire neurodevelopmental process, from embryogenesis to adulthood.

 Our retreat brain—nowadays, usually the right hemisphere—emphasizes gestalts and image-based processing to generate more immediate responses. Our approach brain—nowadays, usually the left hemisphere—emphasizes abstraction and word-based processing to generate more deliberative responses. Although proto-human abstraction had not been spontaneously recombinative, tool use had been gradually priming the pump for a couple million years.

 Neurobiologists Roger Sperry and his protégée Michael Gazzaniga pioneered research teasing apart the cognitive differences between the hemispheres of the human cerebral cortex. Through a series of clever experiments involving previously epileptic people whose seizures had been curtailed by the severing of left-right neural bridges, Sperry and Gazzaniga established that the left hemisphere emphasizes relatively linear, logical, focused, grammatical processing functions, while the right emphasizes relatively associative, affective, holistic, contextual processing functions.

 Functional lateralization is accompanied by structural lateralization on the molecular, cellular, tissue, and organs levels. The human planum temporale, for example, is a roughly triangular area of the cerebral cortex. On the left side, it is centered in Wernicke’s area—crucially involved in abstraction—and its tissues exhibit wider columns and more neuropil space, resulting in the most significant asymmetry of any brain on the planet: the human left planum temporale can be up to five times as large as the right.

 The left hemisphere-centered word, or contingency-based abstraction, is the most distinctive component of the distinctly human signaling system we call “language.” According to Ferdinand de Saussure—a founder of the science of linguistics and was the founder of semiotics, or the study of signs—language is based on signs (which makes sense, since language is a signaling system that involves abstracting information from a gestalt field for purposes of representation and/or communication). For Saussure, every sign has two components: a signifier and a signified.

 Here, the signifier is a more or less arbitrary word or contingency-based abstraction—thinks Wernicke’s area (LH)—and the signified is a more or less meaningful image or affectively prioritized sense data—think fusiform facial area (RH). So, for purposes of representation, communication, and recombination, the word/image-conjoined “utterance” (Saussure’s term) is the building block of linguistic vocalization or speech.

 Simple nouns and verbs were the most concrete utterances (there is a difference in hemispheric emphasis between those basic parts of speech). They were used to create the primal justification narratives / rhetorical systems that selected (often sexually) for the evolution of ever more abstract nouns and verbs, other parts of speech, and eventually (spurred on by writing) linguistic self-reference, including syntactical-symbolical constructions such as “I Am Who I Am” and “I think, therefore I am.”

Eric La Freniere

The ToK as the Ultimate TOK

Consider your reaction to each of these justifications:

George W. Bush was an outstanding president. Matter is made up of atoms. Abortion should be illegal. Science is more reliable than faith. Joseph Smith was a prophet.

Although you might not have labeled it as such, your reaction to these statements will be in part reflective of your theory of knowledge (TOK).  An individual’s TOK can be thought of in terms of both the content of their knowledge (the individual’s ontology—what they justify to be true) and the process by which they arrive at knowledge (the individual’s epistemology—how they justify what is true). Many people, of course, do not explicitly think in terms of their TOK, but there is a movement to change that, as there now is an explicit international course of study on TOK.

I believe it is crucial that we become reflective about our TOK, and perhaps one of the best ways to do that is to spend time with people who have very different worldviews. For example, I happen to be listening to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on tape, and it is striking to consider how different the character’s worldviews are to my own.

If people have different TOKs, how do you know if your TOK is a good one? Although there is much debate about this, philosophers have offered four basic angles to analyze one’s TOK.

1)      Coherence refers to the extent to which the knowledge system offers semantically clear constructs that relate to one another in a logically coherent way. In other words, is the system internally consistent?

2)      Correspondence refers to the extent to which the system lines up with independent evidence. In other words, does the system make predictions about facts to be discovered? (For me the difference between coherence and correspondence is seen comparing the TOK of people with disorganized schizophrenia from delusional schizophrenia. Disorganized schizophrenics lack coherence—at the extreme, there simply is no way to make sense of the semantic network. In contrast, it is often easy to understand what individuals with delusions are saying, but it simply does not correspond with external evidence.)

3)      Comprehensiveness refers to scope (breadth and depth) of the TOK. In other words, to what extent does it incorporate the various domains of knowledge or at least provide a potential explanatory framework for various possible domains.

4)      Conduciveness refers to the extent to which the TOK pragmatically fosters achieving one’s goals. Here the criterion for goodness is simply whether “it works”. Consider, for example, the contrast between myself and Huck Finn. While my TOK may well be more coherent, empirical, and comprehensive, if I were to be transported back into his time and attempted to live in his world, the conduciveness of my TOK relative to his may well be far lower. That is, I may well have floundered and died if I were confronted with the environmental (social and physical) stressors and affordances he was able to navigate.

What is your TOK? What do you think is the best TOK out there? Is there an ultimate TOK. Although I did not set out to develop the ultimate TOK, I now believe that is what the ToK System achieves.

With its novel claim that the universe is an unfolding wave of Energy-Information, and depiction of that wave as consisting of four separable dimensions of complexity, divisible because of the emergence of novel information processing systems (genetic, neuronal, symbolic), the ToK System finally gives us a deep understanding of why there are four separable classes of objects and causes: 1) the material (behavior of things like atoms, rocks and stars); 2) the organic (behavior of cells and plants); 3) the mental (behavior of animals like bees, rats and dogs); and 4) the cultural (behavior of people). And with its joint points, the ToK System provides the best TOK of why and how these broad dimensions are connected, and with its characterization of human knowledge as human justification systems, we finally have a way to conceptualize the place of the human knower in relationship to the rest of the universe.

Gregg

 

Consider the following predicament and options. You are an executive, and a group of 600 people have become infected by a deadly disease and will die if you do nothing. Your advisor comes to you and says you have two options, A & B. She tells you:

• option A saves 200 people’s lives

• option B has a 33% chance of saving all 600 people and a 66% possibility of saving no one

What would you do?

Now consider it this way. You are an executive, and a group of 600 people have become infected by a deadly disease and will die if you do nothing. Your advisor comes to you and says you have two options, 1 & 2. She tells you:

• if option 1 is taken, then 400 people die

• if option 2 is taken, then there is a 33% chance that no people will die and a 66% probability that all 600 will die

Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics because he demonstrated conclusively that people do not function according to the hyper-rational, cold calculating benefit maximizing cost minimizing Homo economicus that traditional economic theory presupposes. Consider the above example. Kahneman (along with his late colleague Amos Tyversky) found huge differences in how people responded to Option A vs. B, as opposed to 1 vs. 2. Over 70% choose option A, whereas only 22% choose option 1. This is despite their being logically equivalent!

This enormous difference is indicative of what Kahneman called the “framing effect”. This finding is part of Kahneman’s larger work on prospect theory and heuristics, which laid the ground work for what is now known as behavioral economics, which analyzes how human behavior deviates from the conception of Homo economicus. (As an aside, I think that the term ‘behavioral’ economics is something of a misnomer, as it really is psychological economics).

Since his work in judgment and decision making, Kahneman has branched out and is now exploring hedonic psychology, or the study of well-being. In this post, I am going to comment on his recent TEDtalk, where he explains how the two domains of human consciousness differ quite dramatically in what it means to be happy.

Kahneman makes three key points in this talk. The first point, which is somewhat subtle in that he only briefly alludes to it, is that happiness is a complicated construct and that there has been a shift away from this term, as it has been found not to capture the essence of what researchers are interested in. In a nutshell, what researcher have ‘found’ is that the concept of happiness is too close to the smiling, happy-go-lucky, everything is chipper way of being that is somewhat trite and immature and does not really capture psychological wellness. As such, psychologists (myself included) do not talk much about ‘happiness’ so much as well-being. Indeed, in our emerging assessment of well-being (The Well-Being Interview), we query folks about ten domains of well-being, including: 1) Overall Life Satisfaction; 2) Degree of Engagement/Interest/Enjoyment; 3) Meaning and Purpose; 4) Habits and Lifestyle; 5) Moods and Feelings; 6) Relationships and Social Support; 7) Defenses and Coping; 8 ) Identity and Self-Acceptance; 9) Stressors and Affordances; and 10) Sense of Direction and Growth. 

The second key point that Kahneman makes is that humans are of two minds, what he refers to in this talk as the experiencing and remembering selves. The experiencing self is the here-and-now, in the moment feeling self, whereas the remembering self is the narrating, recollecting, reflective self that makes judgments and decisions about things. Kahneman’s work on behavioral economics was directly related to this notion of humans having two mental systems, and it is the process by which he explains many of the findings associated with behavioral economics, as he articulates in his recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (see a recent NY Times article by Kahneman summarizing his thoughts).

The third key point–and the one that I found myself mulling over the most–was how the experiencing self and the remembering self evaluated situations differently. For the experiencing self, experience is either good or bad and there is just certain amount of it. In contrast, for the remembering self, changes, goals/outcomes, and endings are heavily weighted. To illustrate this, Kahneman shows the graph of two ‘pain charts’ of people going through a painful medical procedure. Patient A experienced high levels of discomfort for about 4 minutes, then it was over. Patient B experienced a very similar level of pain for the first four minutes, but then it trailed off and there was a notable decrease, such that it ended with relatively little pain. From an absolute experience point of view, Patient A had less discomfort. But, as Kahneman points out, it is Patient B that will report afterwards that it was not nearly as bad as Patient A. Why? Because it changed for the better and by the end it was not bad at all. Kahneman discusses the differences in how the systems respond in several contexts from vacations to income.    

From the vantage point of the unified theory, there is much to like and only a little to critique regarding Kahneman’s work. He is a brilliant experimentalist (I believe he is the only psychologist who has won a Nobel prize–let me know if you know of another) and his studies led to a whole field of behavioral economics. His work on the two mental systems, System 1 and System 2 and their corrollaries in consciousness (experiential and reflective/remembering) is directly congruent with the model of cognition advocated for in the unified theory. I also completely agree with his point about happiness, the complexity of studying it and the importance of considering it as well-being.

If I have a criticism of Kahneman it is that he is VERY cognitive. By that I mean he sometimes seems to characterize judgment and decision making as a very individual process, and he does not elaborate as much as I would like in connecting his work on thinking to either the embodied context or the social-developmental context. From a Behavioral Investment Theory perspective, the experiential self emerges out of the action of the entire body and I argue for an “embodied view” of experiential processing that is not really reflected as far as I can tell in Kahneman’s work. In addition, from a Justification Hypothesis perspective, his characterization of the ‘remembering self’ (or in his writing ‘System 2’) does not place the reflective self in a social matrix. I wish that he would write more on the social dynamics of thinking, specifically how System 2 thought exists in a social context of justification. This would also have the advantage of a) connecting System 2 to a biologically adaptive problem (the problem of social justification); b) connecting to clinical work (e.g., the motives underlying rationalizations); and c) connecting individual level thought with large scale systems of justication.

That said, his work on both the two systems, their implications for reasoning and well-being are generally topnotch.

Jonathan Haidt (pronounced HITE) is fast becoming one of the best known social psychologists, having done influential work in positive psychology and now in moral and political psychology. Continuing with the theme of analyzing leading developments in the field, in this post I am going to comment on Haidt’s TEDTalk, which was on the moral roots of liberal and conservative politics. (Disclaimer: Jon is at the University of Virginia, which is about 40 minutes from my home, and I have presented on the JH for his lab, and I consider him a friend, although I do not know him well).

Haidt’s talk contained several key messages. First, citing Steve Pinker (another hugely influential psychologist), Haidt argues that the blank slate “was one of the worst ideas psychology ever had” and it is now clear that ‘the mind’ comes with much organization prior to experience (although, of course, that organization is plastic and molded by experience). I generally agree with this statement, although I might want clarification about what exactly is meant by experience (e.g., surely there is prenatal experience, and that might be quite crucial).

Early in his talk, Haidt mentions another key point, which is that liberals and conservatives demonstrate large differences in Openness to Experience, which most personality researchers consider to be one of ‘the Big Five’ personality traits. Although I was aware of this finding, as I listened to his talk I wondered about the relationship between trait Openness and political values. Here is the issue: Traits, at least as conceived of by the major trait researchers Costa and McCrae, are seen as almost exclusively determined by genes (although it would be the subject of another post, Costa and McCrae consistently argue this point—I, however, would challenge their characterization as over-exaggerating the genetic case for traits). Political values are transmitted largely via the family (I assume this is true, but would have to explore the research on it). So I could imagine a very interesting adoption study where the trait openness of the biological parents could be analyzed and compared to the political ideology of the adoptive family in predicting the adopted individual’s political values. If anyone knows of research on this topic, I would love to hear it.

The third and primary empirical point of Haidt’s talk is on his research on the five moral value systems that he argues underlie the liberal-conservative political dimension: 1) Care for Others/Do no harm; 2) Fairness/Justice/Equality; 3) In-Group Loyalty; 4) Respect for Authority; and 5) Purity. His research shows—across large numbers of people and many different countries—that there are very reliable differences in the degree to which liberals and conservatives differ in the extent to which they endorse these values. Conservatives tend to value the five domains relatively equally. Liberals, in contrast, value the first two domains much more than the latter three.

Haidt’s final point is we need metacognitive awareness about “the Moral Matrix”. Speaking to a group dominated by liberals, Haidt argues that we should be very aware that such a group (and disciplines like psychology) likely have massive biases against conservative viewpoints. Moreover, Haidt argues (or implies), conservatives actually have a more complicated moral system, consisting all of the five values, whereas liberals are dominated by just two. He asks that we step outside our systems and understand the other point of view.

There is much about Haidt’s work that I like, not the least of which is that it opens up large doors to ask important questions about the relationship between psychology and politics. Consider, for example, the question: Why are so many psychologists liberal? Does psychology have an anti-conservative bias? Or is conservatism defined against psychology in some way? (Note: If you are curious, Steve Quackenbush and I wrote an article on the interface between Clinical Psychology and Politics). If psychology is going to have a large scale impact on how humans think and govern themselves, this is a crucial question the field ought to wrestle with.

Another reason I like Haidt’s work is because it is built on a sophisticated social-cognitive conception of mind and morality that is very congruent with the unified theory (e.g., see this article on the Emotional dog and Its Rational Tail).

Another positive is that he really has done an excellent job documenting key value differences underlying liberal and conservative viewpoints, which is extremely useful and helpful.

Finally, I very much share and agree with his perspective that we must have the metacognitive awareness to step outside the moral matrix and observe ourselves in relationship to others. I believe the ToK System is the ultimate meta-perspective that allows us to do that. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should stay “above the fray” because there are real issues that we need to be for and against, but it does mean we should be able to get perspective.

The positives acknowledged, I do have some criticisms. The first criticism, and I think a fairly significant one, is that Haidt misrepresents the moral values of liberals. He argues repeatedly that liberals only value the do no harm and fairness values. However, that is not really what his data say. A closer examination reveals that it is not that liberals think that in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity have NO relevance. That would be a score of a 0 on his scale. If you look at the graphs, they actually generally cluster around a score of a 2, which I believe corresponds to ‘somewhat relevant’. So the correct interpretation is that liberals value do no harm and fairness MORE than the other three, but they value the others to some degree. To me, this interpretation changes the feel of Jon’s conclusions and message. Should we not vote for a government that emphasizes “do no harm” and “fairness” over “respect for authority, in-group loyalty and purity”? Haidt wants the liberals in the audience to become reflective and wonder the extent to which they are blinded by the Moral Matrix. He uses the interesting argument that conservatives have five moral value systems operating, whereas liberals only have two. This catches the attention of the liberals, which I think is a good thing, because it suggests that liberals may actually be less complex in their thinking, which would come as a shock to their system :o). However, if we simply asked the question, what values should our government be operating from? And answer that by saying that in-group loyalty, purity and respect for authority SHOULD equal fairness and do no harm, my guess is many in the audience would say that is a seriously flawed value system. In group loyalty, purity and respect for authority are somewhat relevant, but not nearly as relevant as the other two. From this framing, the question shifts from why do liberals value only two of the five to why do conservatives value each equally? And that changes much of the implication of what Haidt is arguing for. (In a future post, I will share some very interesting work done on the construct of Ego Development. There is good reason for believing that a liberal view represents a higher stage in ego development than a traditional social conservative view, which offers another answer of why so many intellectuals are liberal relative to conservative—quite different than Haidt’s message.)

The second criticism I have is that many of the variables are confounded. First, he talks about traits, which he does so to set the stage that the mind has a foundational architecture. Yet he does not really connect the dots between Openness to Experience and the five moral systems (although I have not read all of his stuff, I have not seen this in his writing either). A factor analysis of openness to experience does NOT yield Haidt’s moral systems. So the connection between trait Openness and the five moral systems remains nebulous to me. A related criticism is that by connecting the moral values to liberal and conservative viewpoints, he is confounding morality and beliefs about the proper role and function of government. He also walks a very fine line between morality as a scientific construct (which means it is a descriptive construct…we operationalize it and examine moral beliefs and how this impacts actions and policies) and morality as a prescriptive construct (we ought to be functioning via valuing the five moral systems equally).

This last point gives rise to a final criticism, which is that the list of moral systems or concerns does not seem complete. First, while these may be five dimensions that liberals and conservatives consider when voting for a government, it seems to me there are other dimensions. Think for example of libertarians. Haidt mentions briefly in the talk that he has some ideas about Libertarians, but he does not come back to them. He is working on this, and I recommend interested readers check out a blog that deal with moral and political issues and specifically has a paper dealing with libertarians. But my point would be that libertarians hold extremely dear to the value of human freedom. (Come to think of it, so do I!) But where does freedom fit into the scheme? Surely, freedom is a moral-political-governmental value? The paper acknowledges the value libertarians put on freedom, but after reading through it I remained unclear exactly how freedom fits into the five systems. A related issue is that Haidt was talking about social issues, but as the libertarian perspective suggests, social and economic views are somewhat intertwined. This leads to the question are Haidt’s five systems moral systems or are they beliefs about the things governments should concern themselves with?

In sum, Haidt is blazing some very important trails. The five value systems approach is intriguing, his data sets are impressive and clearly he has added much to our understanding of differences between liberal and conservative values. He is also doing a great service to psychology by raising the issue of politics and the relationship between the discipline and political viewpoints. Like Haidt, I do believe there are very important questions to be asked regarding the relationship between politics and science in general and psychology in particular. Areas for future development include clarity about the nature of the “moral systems” relative to other constructs like traits and confounding issues like governmental philosophy, clarity about descriptive relative to prescriptive aspects of morality and related questions about how he is framing his results, and questions about the completeness of the five systems, at the very least addressing the question of individual freedoms.

Gregg

What is a Mental Disorder?

On the heels of my criticism of Seligman’s portrayal of psychology as the science of mental disease, it seems appropriate to address the question What is a Mental Disorder? This is a hot issue right now because the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is in the process of making a major revision, from IV-R to V. In that regard, authors are considering some significant changes to the definition of mental disorder. The definition is a crucial issue for mental health professionals and society in general for many different reasons, including who has access to care and how we think about the nature of the human condition. Given the complex nature of the issues and the fragmentation and conceptual confusion in psychology (and, yes, psychiatry), it should not come as a surprise that there is much confusion and controversy regarding what exactly constitutes a mental disorder. (See, for example, this article by Gary Greenberg).

Here are some basic questions regarding the definition of a mental disorder:

Where is the line between normal variation and pathology? Are mental disorders categorically different or are do they simply exist at the extremes of a continuum?

Does having a mental disorder say anything about one’s character or should it be completely separated from that, and thus the individual should not be judged or stigmatized? What if the disorder is a personality disorder? Doesn’t that, by definition, say the structure of a person’s character is a problem?

Are mental disorders natural kinds that can be objectively specified or are they entirely the result of social values and the cultural construction of what is normal (i.e., different values will lead to different conceptions of what is a mental disorder)?

Are mental disorders essentially like other disease or illnesses in medicine or are they a fundamentally different kind of condition?

This last question is particularly important from the vantage point of psychiatry relative to other mental health professions. Psychiatrists are, of course, medical doctors, and there is thus much pressure for psychiatry to perceive mental disorders as akin to other medical conditions. Yet many mental health professionals, like professional psychologists, counselors, social workers, and marriage and family therapists are neither trained in medicine nor inclined to want to reduce the problems they see to dysfunctional biology.

If you wonder whether this issue has real consequences, check out an open letter about the upcoming DSM revisions from the Division of Humanistic Psychology. The essence of the letter is the concern about medicalizing human problems and suffering and framing the nature of mental disorders in a biologically reductionistic way. (By the way, I signed the petition).

One of my earliest articles (here in word form finalHD) grounded in the unified theory was on the question of what is a mental disorder and focused especially on the issue of whether mental disorders were of the same essential kind as other biological diseases. My answer was that some mental disorders are likely reducible to (neuro) biological dysfunction that produces harmful consequences. Consider, for example, a rather obvious case like Alzheimer’s disease. Other highly likely candidates for what I call mental diseases are autism, schizophrenia, severe cases of OCD, Bipolar 1.

On the flip side, there are many mental disorders that cannot be reduced to or understood in terms of biological malfunction. Instead, these conditions are maladaptive psychological behaviors (often of a cyclical nature) that result in excessive (or clinically significant) levels of distress and dysfunction for the individual and/or society. (The value of the article for me was affirmed when I received a call out of the blue from Bob Spitzer, primary author of the DSM III and IV and told me he thought the analysis was convincing).

I have explored the nature of disorder in some depth via the construct of depression. In an article arguing that we should consider depression a state of behavioral shutdown, I pointed out how different portrayals result in radically different notions of what the term depression means.

 “To get a flavor for why depression might mean different things to different researchers and how those different meanings might carry different sociopolitical implications, imagine two different television commercials. The first begins with an attractive woman isolating herself at a party. Everyone else appears to be having a good time, yet she stands in the background, ostensibly gripped in the throes of a seemingly inexplicable sadness. The cultural milieu is of upper middle class suburbia. A soft voice inquires and informs, “Have you experienced periods of depressed mood? Have you lost interest in things you used to enjoy? Do you feel tired, guilty, ineffective or hopeless? Depression is an illness. Ask your doctor about new antidepressant treatments available.” The implicit message of this commercial is clear. When people are suffering from depression, something has gone wrong with the physiology of the brain.

“Now imagine a different commercial. This one begins with an impoverished woman getting slapped by her husband. Her three children are having difficulties in school. Her husband controls her, and she has little in the way of social support. She recently immigrated to the United States and cannot get a job because she only speaks a little English. She frequently faces prejudice and racism. The voice overlay asks, “Have you been feeling down or depressed, guilty or hopeless? Have you lost interest in things you usually enjoy? Depression is an illness. Ask your doctor about new antidepressant treatments available.” Somehow the “depression as disease” message in this commercial is less convincing.”

I teach my doctoral students that depression is a state of behavioral shutdown. That behavioral shutdown needs to be placed in the developmental historical context to determine its nature. I further argue that, given the nature and context of the shutdown, we can further consider whether depression should be thought of as a normal reaction (in the case of extreme loss, humiliation, or chronic traumatization), part of a vicious psychological cycle (some stress or loss results in maladaptive shutting down which results in further problems and the failure to effectively adapt to the environment) or depressive diseases (when the shutdown is pervasive and occurs independent of context or changes in the environment).

This is a complicated construct with many possible threads and implications and I welcome thoughts, questions, or additional issues to be considered.

Gregg

In the next series of posts, I am going to critically examine major lines of thought that are currently receiving much attention in the field via the lens of the unified theory. I am going to start by evaluating Martin Seligman’s conception of the field, as articulated here in this TedTalk.

Seligman is one of the most famous living psychologists, having served as president of the APA in 1996, and making a number of important contributions to the field, including the learned helplessness conception of depression, and spearheading the positive psychology movement over the past 15 years. In the talk, Seligman articulates his conception of the field of psychology, both in terms of its mission and how well it is doing, after which he proceeds to discuss what is perhaps the key concept in positive psychology, well-being. Seligman shares his three pathways to the good life, which are via positive affect, flow (or engagement in life), and meaning. (In his most recent book, Flourishing, he updated his vision, which is now called PERMA, for Positive Affect, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments).

My evaluation of the talk is mixed. On the positive side, the construct of well-being is a central construct that has traditionally been under studied (see Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape for an interesting argument that well-being is one of the central constructs in all of science—although he barely mentions positive psychology). In fact, my graduate students and I are embarking on the development of a clinician administered structured interview of well-being, The Well-Being Interview, which I believe is the first of its kind. That fact in and of itself is an indication this important construct has been understudied. In addition, with PERMA, Seligman offers a decent conception of well-being, quite similar to our approach. Seligman also deserves kudos for his ability to coordinate large scale empirical studies that are yielding good information.

On the negative side, however, Seligman’s approach is lacking in philosophical and theoretical depth. Indeed, that Seligman is neither a theorist nor philosopher of psychology was painfully apparent in his talk. Listening to Seligman’s conception of psychology, one comes to the conclusion that up until 1995, psychology was indistinguishable from psychiatry, as both were the science of mental disease. Then, eschewing hand waving, wishful thinking, and self-deception (which apparently was what the humanists were doing with their focus on optimal functioning and living constructive lifestyles), good, scientifically minded individuals like him are now leading the charge in studying the positive dimension.

Seligman claims that there are fourteen mental diseases that are treatable (and two that are curable). He makes this claim as though there is consensus in the field about what we study (which there is not) and as if the list of treatable mental diseases is generally known (it is not). Although there have been improvements in the diagnostic reliability and treatment of anxiety and depression, the idea that we can say with precision or consensus that there are 14 (not 13 or 15) treatable conditions is, to me, ludicrous, and an example of proofiness. Moreover, I would strongly contest the description of the conditions that I am guessing are on his list should be characterized as ‘mental diseases’. In fact, there are very good theoretical and philosophical reasons to differentiate mental diseases from mental disorders, but Seligman appears oblivious to such nuances.

I also cringed listening to Seligman’s conception of the field of psychology at large (a conception which is not only given in this talk but in his writing as well). One would hope that a former President of the APA would have a more philosophically grounded conception of the field. Instead, it is a simple, naïve, empirical, pragmatic view. Psychology is what the NIMH has paid it to do, which is to categorize and treat mental disorders/diseases. And now, via Seligman’s vision, psychology needs to also pay attention to the other side of the human functioning continuum. Such an approach is completely vacuous when it comes to dealing with the profound philosophical and theoretical complexities associated with the discipline. Unfortunately, it is exactly this vague conception of the field that is prominent and why so many lack an appreciation of the deeper issues.

In conclusion, Seligman has done the field a great service by highlighting the value and need to turn the methodologies of psychology to the positive aspects of the continuum. However, his conception of psychology reveals what I believe is a rampant naïve empiricism. And without a deeper theoretical and philosophical grounding, it seems likely that research in positive psychology will contribute more information about people, but perhaps little wisdom.

Gregg

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