Psychology – A Discipline Struggling To Find Its Identity, Direction and Technical Development Focus

I finished an excellent biography of the Harvard Psychology Professor, William James, this week, and also had a great email interaction with my old Dean at Northumbria University, Professor Pam Briggs, who is a quintessential Psychology researcher and was a charismatic and creative Dean, and both these got me thinking of Psychology, a discipline I have increasingly become immersed in both from my own research and from a human interest perspective. Psychology is broadly defined as the study of mind and behaviour, and psychology practitioners and researchers examine a broad array of concepts associated with the function of the mind and the behaviour which results from the minds activity, including perception, cognition, attention, emotion, intelligence, motivation, personality, interpersonal and social relations, resilience, brain functioning, and states of consciousness, including the activity and nature of the unconscious. The word psychology derives from Greek origins, where it meant the study of the psyche or soul, though of course attempts to understand these ‘big’ concepts stretches back to scholars in ancient cultures in Egypt, Greece, China, India and Persia, amongst other places. I am sure most folk in their daily lives at some point in time have wondered why they do certain things, why they thought about something in a certain way, or why they responded to different external stimuli in the way that they do, and these thoughts probably occurred in most folk all the way back to antiquity and the beginning of the capacity for self-reflective thought, whenever that was and however it happened.

Psychology as a discipline has been pretty good at answering the questions relating to ‘why’ we do specific things or react in a certain way, and has flourished in many unexpected ways because of this. For example, its principles are used by advertising and marketing companies, with products being created and marketed based on the industries understanding and uptake of psychology based research of human behaviour and function such as the need for comfort, pleasure, and / or excitement. Many of us will have had an experience previously related to the visceral feeling one gets when watching an advert that appeals to one (and which makes us go out and buy the advertised product), but equally of course will associate with feelings one gets when watching or listening to adverts that are annoying and ‘hit the wrong spot’, and which make us not want to associate with or buy a particular product. Psychology has also helped us understand things like why we identify with different social groups, and why we need affiliation and belonging to both create and enhance our sense of self and social identity. For example, some excellent work from old colleagues of mine, Dr Matt Lewis, Dr Melissa Anderson and Professor Sandy Wolfson has shed light on ‘fandom’, and why so many folk become so fervently attached to their sport team of choice, and subject themselves to the highs and lows associated when their chosen teams win or lose. These type of emotions, related to the outcome of events which essentially have no direct bearing on one’s personal life, have always puzzled me (and I feel them often myself), but the work of these quality researchers have shown it comes down to psychological requirements and needs of the folk that feel them, and is an example of how psychology has helped academia, society, and folk like myself understand emotions and reactions which are puzzling and appear to be ‘wasteful’ of one’s emotional energy (at least to me).

Where Psychology as a discipline has perhaps not done as well is in explaining ‘how’ things happen in the brain which produces ‘behaviour’, and where and how the mind works. After several years reading basic psychology texts, in my opinion the ‘golden years’ for Psychology were in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, where astonishing hypotheses on mental and human functioning were developed by groups of clinicians and researchers around the world, which changed both Psychology and indeed how we view the world and understand ourselves. Think names like Freud, Jung, Adler, Hall, James, Janet, amongst a host of others, who brought into popular culture concepts like the unconscious, the ego (and id, though it has not been as well assimilated as has the ego concept), and the inferiority complex – all concepts we now use in our routine language as ‘fact’, yet were pretty much unknown before that golden epoch. Incredibly, most of these concepts have still not been completely ‘proven’ or been clearly associated with any particular brain function or activity, and unfortunately, in many ways it appears that Psychology has ‘regressed’ as a discipline, moving from these very ‘deep’ / ‘basic’ theories to current day theories. For example, the fairly recently developed self-determination theory explains human behaviour as either caused by ‘intrinsic’ or ‘extrinsic’ motives, which to me appear as a theory to be somewhat ‘trite’ in contrast to what came 100 years before (though all credit to the researchers who developed them). While most Biology based disciplines each decade seem to go to ‘deeper’ levels of understanding, Psychology appears to have regressed, and often astonishingly seems these days to ignore the rich work produced in that ‘golden era’ of psychology research alluded to above.

The reasons for what has happened to Psychology is perhaps principally related to the way Psychology developed after this ‘golden era’, and to the unfortunate dearth of investigative laboratory techniques available to Psychology researchers attempting to understand ‘how’ the brain ‘creates’ psychology, and how and where the ‘mind’ exists in the brain. In the 1900’s, after the ‘golden era’, Psychology research subsequently focussed on behaviourism (think stimulus-response work and Pavlov’s dog experiments), then developed areas of research such as ‘cognitive’ psychology, and produced theories of brain function with wonderful, but absolutely speculative and currently unproveable, models such as Baddeley’s ‘visuo-spatial sketchpad’ model of working memory. Most theories that were developed generally always were, and are, accompanied by line diagrams of how different parts of the brain would work and be involved with the particular theory which was being developed, which look good as figures, but tell us very little of ‘how’ things really would work in the brain as related to the theory. A further problem for Psychology also is that it has increasingly relied on its ‘twin-sister’ discipline, Neuroscience, to provide the equipment and techniques which Psychologists believe would be able to answer the ‘how’ questions Psychology as a discipline has generated. Unfortunately, from an understanding of how the brain works perspective, Neuroscience has itself proved to be an almost complete failure in its attempts to understand basic brain function. I can say this with some certainty myself after being a Professor of Integrative Neuroscience for many years – before each lecture I give on brain function, I start by saying us neuroscientists are dismal failures, given that we have so little understanding of basic brain function, mostly because of the lack of sensitivity of our currently available laboratory research techniques and equipment, and the difficulty of performing invasive investigations, both ethically and technically, on the brains of alive humans. These thoughts have been echoed / predated by such luminary scientists as Francis Crick, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in the 1950’s for his work on how genes replicate, then moved into Neuroscience as a researcher. After a few years Crick came to the same conclusion that the lack of any brain laboratory techniques available to Neuroscience researchers then, which were suitable to understand basic brain function, was blocking his and any others attempts to understand how most of basic brain function occurs that are still a mystery to us, such as consciousness, perception, and memory formation, amongst other processes and functions. Unfortunately, in the last few decades any Psychology paper to be perceived to be ‘worth’ anything needs to be associated with MRI scanning or other similar current brain techniques available in Neuroscience related brain research, which generate images that are really no more than ‘pretty pictures’ showing huge brain areas that ‘light up’ when a task is performed, and tell us almost nothing about how the brain operates dynamically, let alone how the ‘big’ concepts such as consciousness and memory ‘work’. So Psychology as a discipline has perhaps ‘gone wrong’ by ‘hitching itself’ to the wrong partner, by allying itself to Neuroscience, which has so little to offer currently to assist it with understanding and explaining the basic concepts and theories generated more than a century ago. It does not help either that some of the ‘big questions’ Psychology examines, described above, perhaps belong to a large degree in the realm of Philosophy, and would be difficult to answer even perhaps with any technological development whatsoever, such as what and where is the ‘soul’ and ‘mind’, which are difficult to define conceptually, let alone explain with any reductive laboratory technique that has been, or will be developed in the future.

So for me, after finishing the biography of William James this week, and having read over the last few years (occasionally labouring through) just about all of Freud’s and Jung’s basic writing from all those years ago, I do perceive (and perhaps being an ‘outsider’ to the discipline, or at best a ‘late disciple’ allows me to do so), that Psychology needs to perhaps have a bit of ‘navel gazing’ itself as a discipline about where it is, why it may be going in the ‘wrong’ direction from the ‘how’ perspective, and that perhaps it has currently ‘allied’ itself with a discipline (Neurosciences) that is currently in absolute disarray / still very much in the ‘dark ages’ laboratory wise, and is struggling itself with its own identity, and I can say this with some knowledge perhaps (though always with caution) after working for more than 20 years as an Integrative Neuroscientist. How to do this as a generic discipline is obviously difficult, and I am fairly sure that the problems both Psychology and Neuroscience currently face will be solved by an engineer / physicist, rather than by a Psychologist or Neuroscientist, who does not work in either field, and who develops technology that will allow a ‘thoughtometer’ to be developed, or something similar, which will be able to ‘tap into’ the unconscious / psyche and will thus help clarify whether Freud, Jung et al from the ‘golden era’ were wrong or right in an absolute way, and will thus help Psychology as a discipline find its ‘way forward’ again from a ‘how’ perspective.

I do know though, if I could go back in time and attend one conference as my absolute first choice from an academic interest perspective, it would have been the Psychology conference organised by Stanley Hall at Clarke University in Worcester, Massachusetts in the USA in 1909, which was attended by and at which talks were given by all of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, William James, Ernest Jones and a host of others who changed our way of thinking about life and our behaviour, whether their ideas were right or wrong. I also know that in 2006, after 15 years of doing lab based physiology and neuroscience related research, and after I had got into reading all the basic texts of these golden era Psychology folk, that before a talk I was due to give back then, I wrote in my ‘ideas’ diary which I always carry around with me: “Strange paradoxical thought when preparing for this talk on the role of biological sciences in the control of exercise and activity, that so much of the neuroscience that I have worked on, read and discussed seems to be completely nonsensical, although it is based on experimental facts, whereas the psychology theories of Freud and Jung appear to make almost complete sense, and ‘feels’ right, even though it is at this stage almost completely unverifiable.” I hope that before I retire, or indeed ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ I will see the development of that ‘thoughtometer’, that I will see Psychology rediscover it’s ‘mojo’, and that I will observe some of my wonderful Psychology colleagues and friends go on and get Nobel prizes for discovering where memories are and how they are stored, where consciousness resides and how it works, and perhaps more importantly, why I wake up in the wee hours of the morning worrying about things that I don’t even realize before I go to sleep are an issue to me. And hopefully also, as in the football fandom example above, why I get grumpy when my beloved football / rugby team loses on a Saturday afternoon, why this has the potential to ruin the rest of the weekend, and where in the brain these ‘crazy’ attachments and emotions are stored!

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About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Dean of the Faculty of Health, Sport and Human Performance, University of Waikato, New Zealand View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

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