Being Mentally Healthy – 7. The Descent of Psychology

In this lesson we look at how conventional psychology evolved – from ancient times into the modern era. What we see in the history of psychology are dueling expositions on dualism, matterism, and energyism, and how they relate to perception, learning, and knowledge.

Let’s begin by being clear on what perception is. Perception is a 2-stage process. Sensation first garners information for the mind, which takes the bevy of disparate sensed stimuli and turns them into representational patterns. Sight, for instance, proceeds by coordinating a collage of snapshots from the eyes, forming a composite image.

Perception turns these sensed representations into symbols and makes sense of them. Perception begins by matching each symbol with recalled similars; categorizing by pattern-matching from memory. This pattern-matching affords identification.

Perception then derives some meaning to the identified symbols, and valuates them. Once the mind decides what something is, it then determines if the symbol is worth any more attention than it has already got. If not, the mind moves on to the next abstraction.

2nd-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: “Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” In this century, Swedish systems analyst Lars Skyttner: “We are subjective beings, always looking for meaning. We compile fragmented data from our senses to construct an artificial whole. We adapt reality to our personal maps, remembering selectively and putting new facts into old molds. Facts are generally interpreted to our own advantage. What is unknown frightens us and we attempt to neutralize it by creating myths, rituals and traditions.”

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Hippocrates, who lived in the 4th century before the common era, is considered the father of Western medicine. He is credited with being first to believe that diseases had natural causes rather than an infliction from the gods. Hippocrates was also revolutionary in proposing that there are natural causes for psychological problems – madness having an organic root rather than being the work of demons.

The legacy of Hippocrates on psychology was treating psychology as a branch of physiology: that the mind was seated in an organ. Hippocrates chose the brain.

A half-century, Aristotle decided instead that the heart held the mind, whereas the brain kept the heart cool. Considering the heat of emotions, Aristotle thought the heart ran hot.

Aristotle considered catharsis positively, describing drama as capable of arousing emotions that can have a purgative effect. Millennia later, Sigmund Freud made catharsis a central concept in his psychoanalytic theory.

Another fundamental aspect of psychology is how we can learn or know anything – the branch of philosophy called epistemology.

Can we know anything other than what our senses tell us? Aristotle thought not. “There is nothing in the intellect that is not in the senses.” Without experiences, Aristotle thought, the mind is a blank slate.

This blank-slate notion, which denies instinct and precocious knowledge, repeatedly arose throughout the history of psychological philosophy. The disproof is easy enough. If the mind were truly a blank slate, it would lack the chalk necessary to do any writing – knowledge would be impossible for lack of the innate ability to learn: to be able to compile experiences into usable facts.

2nd-century Roman physician Galen agreed with Hippocrates that the brain hosted the mind. Galen went on to elaborate a theory of mentation based on fluid movements in the brain. This theory of the mind as fluid dynamics prevailed for nearly 1,500 years.

A dark ages for psychology in Europe lasted from the time of the ancient Greeks to the 17th century – well over a millennium. The Romans had conquest and political intrigue on their minds. After the fall of Rome, the subsequent academic monopoly by the Catholic Church fostered no unorthodox thought.

From the 7th century until the 12th, the world’s intellectual furnace burned brightest in the Muslim world. Avicenna was a Muslim child prodigy who lived in the late 10th and early 11th century. He became a polymath who authored books on a wide range of subjects. His medical book was used in European universities for over 5 centuries.

Unlike Aristotle, who considered the mind a blank slate without experience, Avicenna thought the mind had inborn spiritual ability: to be able to comprehend the cosmic plan and enter into an abiding relationship with unitary reality – what Avicenna called “one essence.” To Avicenna, attaining this relationship was the ultimate mental skill. In this, Avicenna concurred with sages everywhere throughout history.

17th-century French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes believed that the mind permeated the whole body. “The mind depends so much on the disposition of one’s bodily organs.”

The idea of animal spirits – that there is a vital energetic essence to life – was popular among the ancient Greeks, including Aristotle and Galen. Descartes incorporated vitalism into a fanciful conception of behavior: when animal spirits flowed to certain muscles, they invoked behavior. Descartes considered behaviors reflexive: a mechanistic view which presaged behaviorism.

As a God-fearing man, Descartes believed in dualism: that the world had both a physical plane and a spiritual plane. Dualism remains the common belief system regarding reality – taking actuality at face value, with supernatural forces – such as God – at work behind the scenes.

Descartes’ work on animal-versus-human and rational-versus-irrational behavior lit the kindle that became the science of psychology. These were the same subjects that Freud later studied.

17th-century English physician Thomas Willis begat neurobiology as a school of psychology. Willis published the first comprehensive account in Europe of the brain and nervous system in 1664. He viewed the brain as “the chief seat of the rational soul in a man, and the chief mover in the animal machine.” Willis’ work ended up spawning the school of psychology known as behaviorism.

Willis’ comment about “the animal machine” exemplified the mechanistic paradigm that became orthodox. The compelling idea of cause-and-effect inspired the view that Nature behaves in a machine-like way. The invention of accurate clock mechanisms in the mid-17th century furthered that impression. Whence came the idea that there are “laws” of Nature.

The irony is that causality is entirely a construction made by the mind, as is the imperative idea that there is an order to Nature. The mind optimistically insists that at least some of the furniture of the world is subject to control. For that is our only hope of gratification – that we can bend what is before us to our will.

17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza: “The mind of God is all the mentality that is scattered over space and time, the diffused consciousness that animates the world.” This idea of a universal consciousness localizing into individual consciousnesses is an implication that can be deduced from modern physics theories.

To Spinoza there was a unity behind the apparent duality in Nature – a unity which could be perceived. Spinoza: “In so far as the mind sees things in their eternal aspect, it participates in eternity.” Spinoza here referred to the level of consciousness called realization, or unity consciousness, where individual conscious is strongly connected to the unified field of Ĉonsciousness.

Spinoza: “Emotion is suffering.” He acknowledged the power of emotion in stating that “reason is no match for passion.” Accordingly, “true virtue is life under the direction of reason.” Spinoza’s conclusion that self-improvement comes by clarifying thoughts through reason and rationally controlling passions anticipated Freudian psychoanalysis.

18th-century Irish philosopher George Berkeley argued that existence was purely a matter of perception. “All those bodies which compose the frame of the world have not any subsistence without a mind.” Making sense of the world, through the functional experience of categorization, was purely a matter of memory.

Berkeley’s empirical account of sensory aggregation marked a milestone in the history of psychology. While Berkeley’s philosophy of subjective energyism was dismissed at the time, and is still unorthodox in psychology, modern physics theory implicitly relies upon it, finding no objective world.

There is an irrefutable argument to be made that so-called scientific theories which rely on an objective matterism are just religious beliefs. From his study of perception, Berkeley was the first to argue that from a scientific perspective.

Just a few decades after Berkeley, English physician David Hartley imagined a bodily explanation for perception. Hartley hypothesized that “excite vibrations in the aether on the sensory nerves” were responsible for perception. Hartley’s conjecture set the stage for physiological psychology a century later, and paved the way for the pseudo-science of neurobiology by nearly 2 centuries. Hartley’s physiological perspective increasingly became a rallying cry of philosophers and psychologists spouting off on how the mind mechanistically worked via nerves and brain cells.

18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume was an empiricist who believed that experience filled the mind, whether from either external or internal events. “To hate, to love, to think, to feel, to see; all this is nothing but to perceive.”

Hume held that all abstractions spring from the imagination. “Nothing is more free than the imagination. It can feign a train of events with all the appearance of reality.”

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From latter part of the 19th century into the 1970s, the tree of modern psychology grew from previously established branches. Theoretical psychology was largely driven by the assumption of matterism: that the brain creates the mind.

There was an equality strong current that ignored the mind-body problem. In the late 19th century, Austrian physician Sigmund Freud created the great black hole of psychology, around which other schools swirled. The descent of 20th century psychology, especially its practical employment, was in reaction to Freud’s teachings.

Freud invented psychoanalysis and thereby pioneered the industry of psychotherapy. The business of chatting your way to mental health now rakes in nearly $100 billion dollars a year in the US alone. This practice is so profitable precisely because most people are painfully preyed upon by their mind.

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American psychologist John Watson, who published his best-known work in the 1920s, is generally credited with founding behaviorism. Watson believed that human behavior was just a product of conditioning. Watson: “There are for us no instincts. Everything is learned behavior.” Watson went so far as to say “psychology must discard all reference to consciousness.”

Behaviorism reached its logical conclusion with the work of B.F. Skinner in the mid-20th century. Skinner followed Watson, as illustrated by his saying that “mental life is an invention. The mistake is in allocating behavior to the mind.”

In trying to relegate the mind to the dustbin in favor of brain dynamics, behaviorists ran into an insurmountable problem: language. Trying to dispense with words like consciousness, thought, ideas, and other cognitive terms painted behaviorism as shallow and superficial – a fanatical religion which refused to acknowledge that people had inner lives.

Behaviorism did not die out so much as mutate and mute its denial of mental activity. Behaviorism’s perpetuation is neurobiology – an incredible creed which insists that nerve cells are responsible for mentation.

In the latter half of the 20th century, behaviorism was eclipsed by cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology took an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the mind from behavioral artifacts, such as linguistics.

In arguing that language cannot be explained as a stimulus-response process, American linguist Noam Chomsky rejected behaviorism. Chomsky: “The belief that neurophysiology is even relevant to the functioning of the mind is just hypothesis.” By this attack Chomsky spurred the development of cognitive psychology in the late 1950s.

Chomsky was a rarity in rejecting matterism. By this time most psychologists gullibly accepted that the brain mystically generates the mind.

Cognitive behavioral therapy was the practical upshot of cognitive psychology, emerging from psychotherapists that diverged from Freud’s teachings by way of cognitive psychology. Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler, who had collaborated with Freud, was the spearhead of cognitive behavioral therapy. Adler was prone to fortune cookie insights such as, “we determine ourselves by the meanings we give to situations,” and “man knows much more than he understands.”

The arguable progenitor of cognitive behavioral therapy was American psychologist Albert Ellis, who presented his rational therapy in 1955. Ellis baked his own psycho-fortune cookies. “Rational beliefs bring us closer to getting good results in the real world,” and “the best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own.”

19th-century English naturalist Charles Darwin never did figure out how evolution worked. Darwin settled for a nebulous buzzword that found widespread acceptance: “natural selection.” Darwin then turned his attention to studying animal emotions and psychology. Darwin’s writing in this realm founded evolutionary psychology, which is the speculative study of behavior from wondering why it may have evolved.

The matterist perspective of evolutionary biologists was welded to Darwin’s woolly ideas and neurobiology took center stage. The simplistic connections so common in behaviorism were revived.

In the 1940s, Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb sought to understand how psychological processes were related to neural functioning, particularly learning. Hebb thought that the neural interconnections in a neonate’s brain were essentially random, and that neural patterns emerged through experience. He said, “neurons that fire together wire together.” That snappy patter harkened back to Aristotle’s blank slate conjecture.

Neuropsychology had roots stretching back into the 19th century, when men like French physician and surgeon Paul Broca declared “there is a remarkable relationship between the development of intelligence and the volume of the brain.” Broca knew of numerous facts which contradicted this, but he chose to ignore them and promote what he wanted to believe. William James: “As a rule, we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use.”

American physician and psychologist William James had an appealing wit which he profitably put to use. For instance: “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.” James had roaring commercial success with his 1890 book Principles of Psychology, which was brimming with misinformation by way of James’ imagination.

Unsurprisingly, James was a matterist. “A certain amount of brain-physiology must be presupposed or included in psychology.”

The credibility of neurobiology is skewered by the 2 greatest sins of science: confusing correlation with causality, and falling back on tradition. Neurobiology fails to explain consciousness or mentation in any reasonable way, but it remains the best story that matterists have come up with, if only by dint of being the most studied and publicized.

Paul Broca suffered self-delusion, but was savvy enough to say, “the least questioned assumptions are often the most questionable.”

Evolutionary psychology amounts to creative storytelling about how certain human behaviors came about because they were advantageous in some way. Evolutionary psychology is nothing more than piecemeal ponderings which assume that physiology is the producer of psychology.

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Gestalt psychology focused on perception. Gestalt is a German term for form or pattern. Gestalt psychology was founded in 1890.

Gestalt was a stunning repudiation of the reductionism that culminated with the stimulus-response school of behaviorists. Gestaltists embraced synergy.

But Gestalists fared barely better than behaviorists in explaining psychological dynamics. In the late 20th century, English psychologist Vicki Bruce concluded, “The physiological theory of the Gestaltists has fallen by the wayside, leaving us with a set of descriptive principles, but without a model of perceptual processing. Indeed, some of their ‘laws’ of perceptual organisation today sound vague and inadequate.”

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Born in 1908, American psychologist Abraham Maslow became one of the most influential psychologists in the 20th century. Maslow was concerned with human potential rather than its deficits.

Maslow thought that people were driven by an innate hierarchy of needs. The apex of Maslow’s hierarchy was self-actualization. Maslow portrayed self-actualization as realizing one’s potential – whatever that meant to an individual.

Contentment was not Maslow’s conception of self-actualization, though his idea of self-actualization did share some of the classical ideal of mental health. “Self-actualized people live more in the real world of Nature than in the man-made mass of concepts, abstractions, expectations, beliefs and stereotypes that most people confuse with the world. The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”

Unsurprisingly, Maslow took flak from many academic psychologists, who regarded his humanistic approach too subjective and unscientific.

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Psychology theory and practice diverged as matterist ideas dominated theory but could offer no solutions. Freud’s idea of a “talking cure” held sway. The other practice which found favor was psychopharmaceutical: drugs that altered mood or consciousness.

With rare exception, drugs can only dim awareness. There is no chemical solution that leads to mental health.

As to conversational therapy, mental health is not an intellectual feat. It cannot be discovered using the flashlight of insight. There is no talking cure. You cannot think your way to mental health. We expound on this in later lessons.

Next, a historical perspective on mental illness and health.