Psychology: Philosophy, Research, Therapy, and Coaching

Posted on March 20, 2013

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The study of the brain is important for linking human experience and behavior with basic physical processes.

The study of the brain is important for linking human experience and behavior with basic physical processes. Bottom up approaches tend to emphasis the brain’s role and neural processes in behavior and attempts to understand the whole by understanding the relationship between the individual parts.

We all have subjective states but they are only observable to us. The only person we are sure has a mind is ourselves, the rest we infer from behavior. This is a problem for an objective science of mental experience.

We all have subjective states but they are only observable to us. The only person we are sure has a mind is ourselves, the rest we infer from behavior. This is a problem for an objective science of mental experience. Top down approach’s tend understand the system as a constructed whole and lower level functions are deduced from this whole.

1. What is Psychology, who does it, and what is it for?

Scientific psychology can be divided into academic, either theory or experimental and observational research, or applied, treating people with mental illness, organizational and marketing psychology, sports psychology, forensic, counseling, and coaching. Everyone who is capable of understanding that others have minds is a psychologist to some extent. We all must deal with other people’s thoughts and feelings when they result in behaviors or actions that affect us and our world. This ordinary understanding we have of each other, our theories about others’ motivations, internal thoughts and feelings makes it important for us to have theories that explain and predict others behavior. These theories need not be scientific or even consciously known, and they’re generally based on limited experience or hardwire neural circuitry. This everyday understanding that most of us have is often called “folk psychology” or “commonsense psychology” and we understand it intuitively through interacting with other mental beings and reflecting on our own feelings and thoughts. But like intuitive physics or chemistry our automatic assumptions and intuitions can lead us astray. And like intuitive thinking about the physical world we need a system based on science to help bring us closer to true reality however it may be. But can a subject that focuses on the internal subjective processes of the mind even be a science at all. Can an objective study of the subjective mind even be possible?

Like most sciences, psychology’s intellectual history can be traced back to the natural philosophy of the ancient Greeks, though all human cultures likely speculated on the nature of the mind, soul, and conscious existence. It remained within philosophy until scientific experimental psychology attempted to connect the mind or behavior with physiology, which began in the late 19th century with the work of Paul Broca, Ivan Pavlov, Hermann Ebbinghaus, William James, and Wihelm Wundt, who was the first to call himself a psychologist. Sigmund Freud popularized many concepts in psychology through his development of psychoanalytic theory and therapy. This is why most people today often associate psychology itself with psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Freud’s theories aren’t scientific and can’t be tested scientifically. His greatest contribution is popularizing the idea of the unconscious affects our conscious lives in great ways. Modern cognitive psychology offers a more science-based explanation of non-conscious and automatic mental processes, but non-scientific psychological theories remain very popular among the public.

2. Can psychology be a science like biology, chemistry, and physics?

This isn’t exactly clear. But much of psychology can be theoretically connected or (ontologically) reduced to the physical sciences. The brain produces the mind, therefore the mind is a biological product of the brain. The question of an immaterial soul is a matter for religion and can’t be addressed by the tools of science, but the mind is something that we can observe or infer from behavior. So it is possible to apply scientific method to it. We know the brain produces the mind by looking at the effect that drugs and brain injury has on the mind or the behavior, the mirror of the mind. If chemicals like LSD cause effects in the mind then either the mind is physical or non-physical things can interact with the universe, which violates the laws of physics. If psychology is continuous with the natural sciences then this makes theoretical space for a connection with all of the social sciences from sociology to economics with the natural sciences.

What is the role of academic and research psychology?

Generally speaking it’s to understand the human mind including sensations, perceptions, neural processes, behavior, emotions, thoughts, and social interactions. It attempts to explain normal behavior like language or love, and to understand abnormal phenomena like depression and schizophrenia. Academic psychology can be described as having two general approaches: top down and bottom up (see images above). Historically psychology has looked at the subjective experience or behavior from the top down like mental illness for explanations. The bottom up approach seeks to start with the biology of neurons and the brain and tries to understand how they create the function of the mind-brain and explain behavior from the parts up to the whole. In the 1990’s neuroscience and psychology made great progress in synthesizing the top down and bottom up approach and a more complete picture of mind, brain, emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and social experience are emerging and being understood in rich new ways. There are many applications for this new knowledge that could radically change how we live and experience our lives.

3. What is psychotherapy and coaching?

These are areas of applied psychology that apply theory and data from research and apply it to real world problems. Clinical problems like depression, anxiety, psychosis, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, sexual deviance, and other mental illness are the main concern of abnormal psychology. Psychotherapy is concerned with usually speaking and discussing the clients life, relationships, history, illness, or current experience in order to treat and remedy the problem so that they can function as normally as possible. Sometimes hypnosis and other therapies are involved. Psychiatry is different from clinical psychology in most countries, though they used to be a single field. Psychiatry is a branch of medicine that deals with most of the same mental illnesses but use drugs and occasionally shock therapy or surgery as a treatment. So most psychiatrists must have a medical degree to practice. Clinical psychologist use psychotherapy, usually a talk, behavioral, or cognitive therapy, as a means to remedy a mental disorder. Some traditional therapies like psychoanalysis don’t seem to be effective for many problems. Psychologist who follow a scientist-practioner model are shown to get better results for most treatable disorders. They first are scientist who only use methods that have evidence to support it and as practitioners apply these methods in the most successful ways and then measure their success. Cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT has the most scientific support for the treatments of many of the most common disorders like depression, anxiety, and anger management. Most psychologist in most countries need a PhD, and sometimes a Master’s, to practice.

Coaching is concerned with applying psychology, and in some cases non-scientific practices, to help a client, who doesn’t usually have a clinical problem, with improving themselves or advancing in their personal or business goals. Psychotherapy focuses on taking a person with a problem and helping them be normal, coaching focuses on taking a normal person and making them excel. Science or evidence-based coaching comes from the Positive Psychology school of thought associated with Martin Seligman, who criticized psychology’s traditional focus on diseased and clinical populations instead understanding what makes people happy and thrive in life. Positive psychology isn’t to be confused with “positive thinking,” where the idea is that if you just think positively then good things will happen. Positive psychology is an in depth scientific investigation of strengthening human talents and abilities. Coaching is relatively new and there aren’t yet rigid standards for what qualifies someone to practice coaching, so there is a lot of “New Age” life coaching that relies on questionable methods that aren’t at all scientifically sound. Personally, I think an educational coaching approach is best. This is where a client learns about their own personal psychology and goals, and the best ways to excel is through education so that the client internalize techniques to coach themselves.

4. What is parapsychology and pseudo-psychology?

These are not scientific, but often attempt to seem scientific. Parapsychology claims to study paranormal phenomena like psychic mind reading, moving objects or communicating with pure thought, and so on. Parapsychology is a kind of pseudo-psychology, which means it isn’t a true science but only tries to appear like it. Other forms of psuedo-psychology involve various “therapies” based on very special methods that only one person or institute practices exclusively. It’s not always clear what practices exactly are pseudo-psychology or not. For example, many psychotherapies are based on religions, which aren’t scientific, but have been shown to be effective for some disorders. Other therapies may be based on astrology or psychic healing but the clients often claim to find relief. Scientific psychology has a partial explanation for this called the placebo effect, a form of suggestion when a sugar pill will relieve the pain because the person believes it will. Research does confirm the healthful benefits of prayer and mediation. It’s thought to affect the same part of the brain (areas in the prefrontal cortex) involved in empathy and gives the prayer or meditator a sense of being felt and understood which is a basic social need we all have.  This can have dramatic effects on the immune and other systems.

People can also experience a nocebo effect, the opposite of placebo, where a person believe something like electromagnetic fields or windmills are causing disease and experience symptoms. They can often find special treatment like a special metal or crystal, that remedies their imaginary disorder. For example in France two women have fled to caves to escape the symptoms like intense body pain and headache, they claim to experience from wifi radiation. They say that it’s getting worse inside the cave and are growing a fruit and vegetable curtain at the entrance of their cave that they believe protects them from the wifi. This is extreme, but people with similar disorders are easy targets for therapies based on questionable pseudo-psychology.

The existence of Multiple Personality Disorder in psychiatry is controversial. It’s symptoms are supposed to included multiple individual personalities existing simultaneously within a single person along with dissociation, or separation from the self and reality. What is controversial is whether the distinct personalities aren’t actually caused by the therapist helping the patient interpret their symptoms as multiple identities or if they actually exist. There is no scientific evidence to support the existence of such a disease. So even among highly trained and qualified mental health practitioners these matters are far from clear.

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Posted in: Psychology, Science