Sunday, 30 November 2008

sense and nonsense in psychology

Well, I don't have an example to hand. But haven't you ever noticed how frequently psychologists tell themselves things like "In psychology what we are interested in is the meaning of the phenomena. It's all very well (being a biologically minded psychiatrist and) developing a causal understanding of the thought or behaviour in question, but we mustn't treat the subject as merely a broken mechanism, etc etc"
And that's fine, I guess - for a certain range of psychological phenomena. But why on earth curtail one's psychological remit so grossly in advance of examining what it is that (competent) psychologists might actually do, within their job description, in practice? For several different modes of negotiating with meaning and with the apparently senseless come to my mind right now, and only one or two of them appear to be adequately constrained by the above-caricatured simplistic self-understanding.
  1. So, yes sure, it does sometimes - often? - happen that myself and the client are engaged in a process of making sense of the apparently senseless. The client may come along not really knowing why they are doing what they are doing. Why they can't get over the loss of their dad (we explore the ambiguities in their relationship with their dad and it soon becomes clear), why do they keep feeling this compulsion to clean (well, they haven't been adequately trained in anxiety-tolerance as a child, and so get caught up in short-term attempts to manage distressing obsessions by compulsively neutralising them; or they are symbolically attempting to wash away feelings of emotional 'contamination'), why do they keep getting agitated and unable to study (becase they are rebelling against a harsh parental introject whose only way of self-parenting is through the use of the stick rather than the carrot).

  2. But what about those times when what is driving the psychopathology is the very idea that there must be a meaning, a reason, a purpose - when perhaps there just isn't one? (And why in any and every case should there be one? What kind of a metaphysical prejudice is that?) I'm thinking principally here of cases of severe depression. The depressed person keeps trying to find a reason for why they did what they did, why something happened to them, and so on - but they are trying to answer an impossible question (there was no reason). Far more helpful, here, it seems to me, to help the patient 'externalise' their depressogenic thinking, and to see it as a kind of centripetal vortex that constantly grips their mind, spinning a web of attempted reason around a pseudo-cognition. (When subjects recover from psychotic depression, do they tell us that they have now made sense of why they felt just so guilty, or why they had the delusion that ...?)

  3. And what about those other times where sense must be developed rather than recognised? Or when an existing sense has developed which constrains too tightly the pre-reflective meanings organised within it? I'm thinking here about child development and about psychosis. So: children gradually learn to articulate their desires according to the narratives available to them in their home environment. This is often not a matter of correctly labelling or recognising nicely pre-individuated desires, but rather of the in-form-ing of desire itself. What was at first a fairly inchoate feeling, a very loose set of dispositions, now becomes tightened up, structured: the desire gains shape. But sometimes if the environment has not been apt for individuation, then narratives of the self may have developed which crack and strain at the scenes, and cannot be maintained through any amount of narrative work without an enormous (perhaps intolerable - hence psychosis?) amount of psychological effort. Here - just as with the development of symbolic capacities in, say, play therapy - desires are born afresh, out of the ashes of the old psychological structures. This is not a matter of making sense of something, but making sense out of something.

  4. And what about all of our behavioural interventions, our mindfulness interventions, and the rest of it? Behavioural activation is hardly a matter of sense-finding, but is surely none the less psychological for all that. Hypnotic interventions are not sense-finding either, but are still (surely?) psychological. Mindfulness interventions are about becoming aware of thoughts and feelings per se, as they are - and not about 'making sense of them'. Doubtless the list could go on and on.
So next time you see a psychologist describing what they do as 'making sense of the apparently senseless', you can ask why they restrict themselves to such a limited portion of psychological activity. And why, too, they restrict themselves to such a limited (merely recognitional) theorisation of the relation between sense and its articulation.