On the Art and Science of Psychology

After doing some light reading on philosophy, I realized that my lifelong search for the truth in the form of the truest knowledge of people and the world could be considered the philosopher’s mission.In my admittedly anemic reading of the Oxford introduction to On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietszche’s rejection of science pushed my mind into action to see that he views truth as the pursuit of artists, the catalyst of my thought that perhaps science is merely another religion by way of rejection of religion. I had never articulated it before, but I do believe that art is more truthful than science.

One particular field strikes me as falling folly to the religion of science, that of psychology. It is a study of the human mind, a living organ in its own right. For the longest time, there have been plenty of folk who find the study of the mind to be a sham. Many cultures find certain aspects of psychology to be either nonsensical (and thusly not worthy of respect) or self-absorbed. To many people, the value of psychoanalysis is questionable. In fact, some consider psychology to fall short of the mark of a true science, relegating it to the status of pseudoscience.

The field of psychology appears to have made efforts to gain respect and acceptance in the scientific community. The creation of the Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D) degree is an appeal to the egos of the psychology community, an attempt to establish its credibility as a science.

But any grounded professional will tell you that there are no hard answers and no laws in psychology, only tendencies. There will always be aberrations and deviations from the norm, if one could establish a norm in the abnormal. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is rife with errors in its assumptions and rigid criteria. In fact, the creation of the DSM is in itself another attempt to gain the respect of scientific community.

Take for example cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). As I understand it, evidence-based therapies like CBT are gaining momentum as the status quo for those seeking mental health care on an HMO’s dime; the reasoning being that it can be planned and structured in order to deliver results within a given timeframe (i.e. within a set number of sessions). CBT, focusing on tangibles and observable behavior, is more scientifically oriented.

I am not discounting the value of the sciences, but the truth is that psychology, like anything that is delightfully complex, is farmorean art than it is a science. I find that it’s a mistake to try to assert so much scientific method to something that is inherently intuitive and intangible. In the digital/analog paradigm, psychology is definitely analog. The conversion of psychology into a science is the conversion of an analog waveform into digital bits and bytes: there will be a loss of quality in the translation. We ascribe so much importance to hard numbers and science in this day and age. It’s no wonder that psychology is being made to fit into such values. But what if psychology were treated as more of an art?

Take for example the art of design. Even in the creative world of design, there are rules and guidelines that are defined by numbers. Typography follows certain conventions based on ratios. The rule of thirds in the visual arts is a rough guideline to follow when composing an image. Beauty can at times be ascribed to Da Vinci’s golden ratio. All of these rules aid an artist in creating aesthetically pleasing images. Yet there surely are beautiful works that do not follow these rules.

So perhaps psychology should not be confined to the hard and fast rules, laws, and theorems of the sciences. I believe that those who are practitioners of psychology (i.e. those who actively engage clients in the mental health industry) should aspire to become more than someone who abides strictly by the text in their books. Rather, the field of psychology should be viewed as one in which the craft is governed not by academics but by practitioners; not a science, but an art.

It is in these beliefs that I posit that psychotherapists are like artists. There are those who are talented: the ones whose intuition and beautiful clarity of vision guide their clients down a path of self-discovery and mental and spiritual healing. And then there are those who are terrible: the ones who are clueless, limited by their education.

Because I deem psychology to be an art, I find it appropriate to say that it is a field where true success lies greatly in talent. As with anything worth pursuing, there will undoubtedly be those who are attracted to the profession despite their talents lying elsewhere. It is akin to those who wish to become a musician or a painter or any other creative professional. Few people actually have the talent necessary to be any good at their desired pursuit.

But what exactly is talent? This I will cover in a different piece that I have also been working on.

  • Gary

    [Note from WW – edited for messy line breaks]

    Great post, very thought provoking. I’m hoping that you start writing more of these.

    In the meantime, the insights you’ve provided are excellent points for further discussion.

    I think we need to clarify on the concept of “truth.” In your opening, Nietzsche views that truth is the pursuit of artists. I think the logical question here is to ask what Nietzsche is referring to as truth. I haven’t read this particular piece of work by Nietzsche, but I have studied his metaphysics… I hope I can safely extrapolate his views there to here. I wonder if he means that, in an relativistic world and in an existential sense, the artistic endeavor deals more with truth as qualia, the qualitative aspect of existence. The experience of qualia isn’t a scientific question and can only be addressed by artists, be it the writer, visual artist or musician.

    Moving on, psychoanalysis is a bad representation of contemporary psychology. Psychoanalysis has long been dumped by recent generations of academic psychologists and indeed it is considered to a pseudoscience amongst the most of the scientific community. Psychology, nowadays has transitioned into a much more different paradigm, its explanations and hypotheses based mostly on biology, evolutionary theory and interestingly game theory. It’s unfortunate that the general populace (who aren’t inclined to be intellectually curious) isn’t aware of this. In the “real” world, psychology is represented by pop psychologists like Dr. Phil, people who write BS books, people who frankly aren’t too fond or capable of critical thinking and eschew it to writing more for appeal and comfort, etc. What people should understand is that no serious academic psychologist entertains psychoanalytical ideas anymore (though there have been a few recent interesting studies conducted by psychoanalyst oriented researchers.) The area in which psychoanalysis seem to still persist is in therapy circles. Understandable, as I’ll momentarily discuss.

    You didn’t offer any arguments in claiming that many cultures find psychology difficult to accept, perhaps it is this perception of psychology, or uninformed understanding of psychology as a largely psychoanalytic field, which amounts to most of those differences. I recall that in personality psychology, there are compatibility issues with non-Western cultures and a Western culture based Big Five system, but there are measures and alternatives in this case that fit into the larger framework of theory anyway.

    I wouldn’t say the DSM is an attempt of the psychology community to raise itself to greater scientific “status.” Laws in science are hardly exist and most of those reside in the strictly physical sciences on very fundamental things like the behavior of gasses and gravity and crap. I think it’s safe to say that with something as complex as psychology, where not everything can be seen as a nice neat closed system as say in a classical physics problem. As such, it’s understandable why the scientific community is reluctant to call anything in most scientific fields a “law” anymore. However, you want a law? You got a law. It’s actually quite well known- Psych101 material actually: Operant Conditioning, more specifically, Thorndyke’s Law of Effect. Together with Pavlovian Conditioning, two of the most basic things taught to us in Psych101, I wouldn’t say psychology hasn’t established any fundamental principles or rules.

    Taking your argument that the DSM is an attempt by the psychological community to affirm its credibility… I’d like to change a few things around and say that the DSM is more of an attempt of the psychiatric community to affirm its own credibility as a medical discipline. Given that, it has more to do with the practice of medicine- an entirely different realm, not much to do with psychology as a science.

    I get the feeling that you’re addressing therapy more than psychology in your post and calling it psychology. The two, apparently, are two entirely different worlds- with therapy having more to do with applied psychology, where psychology deals only with data and theory. The therapists that do ply their trade different as you have pointed out, is a matter of holistic “healing” vs. a more traditional direct intervention. And then there most likely are bad therapists in general, no matter their approach. I also get the feeling that the former is much pricier, and uneconomical for your average person, both practictioner and client. Given this, it’s understandable why a lot of therapists would turn to CBT- no nonsense, you solve problem and get the job done right away. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t those who require more extensive, holistic treatment though or that help isn’t available, but to pull that off you’d require a heck of a personality. Not many are capable of that task.

    I hope I’ve shed light on the matter, it’s really a non-issue. You want that kind of help? I’m sure it’s there, but it isn’t going to be easy to get. In general, CBT has a good track record and is an example of cool applied psychology. Psychology, as a science, cannot give a complete description of qualia (though it may measure the mechanism and dynamics of it.) If we take that to be the truth that Nietszche happens to be discussing there, then we can’t apply psychology. We turn to the arts. But psychology as a science shouldn’t be dismissed, because come on, its f-ing neccessary. I mean, don’t you want to understand why some people are say, schizophrenics? Or optimize the development of a child’s emotional, intellectual and social faculties? There’s a lot of valuable knowledge that we can gain from scientific study in psychology.

    Are you studying clinical psychology or something? Your concerns seem to be centered more on the clinical aspect of psychology, where my interests lie strictly in the academic realm.

  • Quite right my friend. I am mostly addressing clinical psychology and therapy. But using that entire term doesn’t quite have the same ring for my title.

    To clarify, I am not saying the human mind is not worthy of study. Far from it. As simply, concisely and precisely as I can put it, my point is this: perhaps more could be understood of the human mind if the study of it were not constrained by the unimaginative boundaries of science.

    I would have to say that other sciences such as biology and chemistry have a far more predictable topic of study. Blood flows through veins and for the most part, water is two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule put together. Psychology by and large is not a field that has the luxury of such predictability. Neuroscience and biopsychology can study the effects of serotonin and dopamine and GABA and all that. And it’s all good and well that we are trying to gain more understanding with that. Those are what I consider to be more specific disciplines that I would not throw under the umbrella of psychology. Like I said, I am not discounting the sciences. I only wished to point out the dogma of science and how it may not necessarily be the best and sole way to further the field of psychology. Primarily, it is my contention that sciences are best left to the physical realm of tangibles.

    Additionally, I am not saying that laws have not been created or have no place in psychology. Of course I accept that general patterns and tendencies should be established and used as guidelines. This is what I mean when I make an example of visual design (i.e. the rule of thirds). However, under the paradigm of a hard science, these rules and laws are relatively inflexible (e.g. two and two add up to four, molecules are made up of atoms). As such, the science of psychology would not leave very much room for interpretation and subjective experience.

    The DSM is indeed more of a psychiatric machination, one that encourages the restrictive interpretation of symptoms that I just described in the hard science paradigm. I should have been more specific by saying that its misappropriation by psychology circles is my contention. It would seem that you are well-aware of the criticisms of the DSM so I’ll not get into the details. Suffice it to say, it is a tool most effectively used as a guideline (at best) and not as gospel. Its roots are in medicine, something I would deem a far more scientific discipline than psychology. Yet it was created to address psychological issues. This is what I mean in the digital/analog example.

    This wraps back around to my interest of the dogma of science. Because psychotherapy can involve some aspects that are largely interpretive, and because there are no easy answers because it isn’t a ‘closed system’ as you say, it is viewed as a very slippery field. This inability to create hard and fast rules (e.g. “Generally speaking/it depends”) out of the human psyche is, in various cultural circles that I’ve come across, grounds for dismissal.

    On the whole, I am personally far more interested in clinical psychology than I am anything else. Hard science, the chemical and biological aspect of the brain, doesn’t interest me, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering my inclination towards the arts and creativity. Again, while I don’t discount science, I do wonder if the vigorous application of the scientific method is futile when it comes to trying to understand the fickleness and unpredictability of the human spirit.

    As for Nietzsche, I wasn’t trying to implicate anything of his work or philosophy in this piece, only using that thought as a springboard for my own ideas. To be frank, I haven’t found the energy to devote my time to studying his work.

    P.S. I do wish I had more energy to write these sort of pieces. Alas the summer heat makes me prone to lethargy, both physical and mental.

  • Gary

    It is futile to take that approach. It’s a completely inapplicable. Do you use a barometer to measure the redness of red? I don’t know why anyone would even consider taking that approach to the experience of qualia, it’s simply invalid. This is from a strictly scientific level of analysis.

    Arguably, the DSM however does not reside on a strictly scientific level of analysis. It definitely isn’t as pure as to its method of measurement. And frankly, it can be quite open to interpretation. As such, I challenge the notion that the DSM is even a problem of the sciences, it is an issue (should one see a problem with it) with the psychiatric community and medicine in regards to matters of the mind. More specifically, it is a matter of protocol and with that, it can’t be scrutinized as a problem of science. Why? That would be akin to relegating a problem unique to the field of engineering (also applied science) as a problem of science. Perhaps there are engineering students that may disagree with some of its guidelines and protocols and think that things should be done differently. Perhaps there is an individualistic architect out there that thinks buildings should be built from top down instead of bottom up for whatever reason. However, these differences don’t really have to do with science. They have to do specifically, with the practice and protocol of their respective fields.

    On the matter of the “fickleness and unpredictability of the human spirit,” I again, agree. Not a scientific question. However, there is one interesting caveat here, that gnaws at you once you start thinking about it on a philosophical level. If we accept that artists are in pursuit of the “truth,” here meaning qualia and those aspects of life that are outside the reach of science. Then we must wonder, is one particular truth identical to another particular truth? We can project this from a general philosophical question to what you address specifically. In the sort of therapy that you would prescribe, if you were the therapist, is it really possible to understand what someone else is going through and feeling, given that it is them and not you? It’s a little bit like asking whether, does the Wistful Writer experience the color red, the same way I do? Given this, is such a perfect therapy possible? Or is it simply a matter of chance connection between two people, who just happen to misunderstand each other’s experiences in the right random way?

  • I must point out that psychiatrists do not interpret the criteria laid out by the DSM. Rather, they interpret their patient’s symptoms. There are three basic building blocks of the DSM: a set of behaviors, a duration of those behaviors, and the factor of whether or not those behaviors interfere with the patient/client’s activities of daily life. It is up to the practitioner to reconcile the two sets of conditions between the DSM and the patient.

    In any case, I have a feeling that something is being missed here. I never said that we should do away with the sciences. I also never said that the DSM is a “problem of the sciences”. What I did say was quite simple: “The Diag­nostic Statis­tical Manual of Mental Disorders is rife with errors in its assump­tions and rigid criteria.” That is to say just that. No more, no less. I am criticizing the DSM for its application of scientific inflexibility to a field that benefits more from a more grounded and realistic approach. Some hold a sentiment that academics are removed from the real world what with their love of theorizing, and I tend to side with that point of view. As I’ve said time and again, the sciences have their place. But it is far more productive to apply scientific rigor judiciously where needed. This example extends to the general field of psychology where the study of the mind is concerned.

    As far as psychotherapy is concerned, if therapists could only be effective if they had experienced everything as the client had, well, they’d all be out of work. More important is the ability to observe, analyze, and interpret a client’s behavior and thoughts in a way that is true to them. The client must be understood. As I’ve preached before, there are as many worlds as there are living creatures. There is no single truth (I have that phrase, translated into Latin, engraved on a business card holder). Bearing that in mind, empathy is important to the process of psychotherapy, but having gone through the same things as someone else (let alone experiencing the events in the same way, if it’s even possible) is not a requisite to understanding. It is the job of the therapist to gain a deep and meaningful connection to the truth of the client’s issues so that he may sort through all of it, to make sense of it so that he can help the client navigate her own psyche. That the client connects to the therapist is an effect of the therapist’s efforts; but the client bears not the burden of connecting with the therapist.

  • Gary

    This is a bit of a late reply, as I haven’t been on here in awhile now, but you’re right, I was misunderstood on the matter of science. I kept on getting the impression that psychology was under attack because of the somewhat ambiguous use of the term psychology and the polemical writing style.

    I had a lot more stuff on my mind earlier but I’ve forgotten what I wanted to say. On the matter of the DSM, however, unfortunately I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I get your drift on the overall matter of a different approach to therapy, but I’m thinking of how helpless we’d be in dealing with people with, say, schizophrenia, if we didn’t have guidelines that would recognize it. You might agree that in such cases, guidelines are necessary and helpful, right?

    On the matter of psychotherapy, that is true. Actually, I don’t know much about the practice of therapy outside of what little I’ve been exposed to in psychology textbooks. The bit about whether it was possible to truly understand another’s experience was just an intellectual spin-off from what we were discussing, being ignorant of what you had described on the task of the therapist.

  • While the DSM has its place, from all of the psychology students and even some therapists I have come into contact with, it seems to me that in the real world it is the incompetent practitioner who does a poor job of actually interpreting the symptoms accurately. Misdiagnoses are high enough where one must start questioning the accuracy and clarity of the DSM’s criteria. There is also the criticism going around psychology circles that the DSM has too much comorbidity and that the disorders overlap. Contrast this with a true medical diagnosis. For example: someone can be diagnosed with asthma. Asthma is asthma, but there is no comorbidity with say, tuberculosis (I am admittedly talking out of my ass here because I know nothing about medicine). Now take the DSM. Someone can be diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Eating Disorder. Which one is it? How does someone treat both disorders? Do you try to “fix” one of them at a time? If so, which one?

    In essence, it’s a real mess. When it comes to psychological disorders, it’s far too messy to diagnose and treat compared to medical issues. A premed student I know once said that “medicine [was] essentially advanced plumbing.” So, to reiterate, I was speaking strictly to the point of clinical/applied psychology (and more specifically psychotherapy). I of course believe in guidelines (again pointing to my appreciation for guidelines in other fields, e.g. rule of thirds, golden ratio, etc.), but the DSM as it is is flawed for many reasons, some of which I described. That in conjunction with the fact that many practitioners do not use it correctly as a diagnostic is what I am mostly concerned with.

    In any case, you’re right that its ambiguous. I just mostly wrote this on the fly, but were I taking it more seriously, I would’ve taken care to be more precise in my definitions and such. Perhaps when I’ve got the time, I’ll be putting together a rewritten collection of these writings that define my world view and stance on matters I deem to be of importance, with more attention to further defining and clarifying my thoughts.