Is Dr. Zwig Crazy?
I have a very strange relationship with the field of psychology: I’ve dedicated my life to studying it despite the fact that I consider most of it to be bad science. You may wonder why anyone in their right mind would spend so many years doing something he doesn’t believe in. Well, the old saying goes, “Only crazy people go into psychology.” And that may be true, but there’s a more interesting reason I do it: After decades of research into the human condition I’ve arrived at the conclusion that psychology—the study of the human mind—is the royal road to understanding not only ourselves and the world, but all of life. Why? Because the mind is the foundation of everything. It generates all that we know and experience—from the simplest sensation to the grandest scientific discovery to the most sublime spiritual experience.
By “Mind” Do I Mean Thinking?
No. I mean all of the mind’s functions: Consciousness, sensation, perception, cognition, thought, feeling, intuition, imagination, judgement, language, memory, etc. Neither do I mean the brain because you’ll never find your experience of life—say, a beautiful sunset or a spiritual insight—by analyzing a slice of brain tissue; all you’ll find there are cells and neurochemicals. You won’t find a thought or feeling in the brain either; you’ll only be able observe the neurochemical processes involved in what you experience as thinking and feeling. How the brain converts chemistry to actual experience—in fact, how we’re able to experience and know anything at all—is the greatest mystery in the universe.
Right Idea, Wrong Approach
You might be thinking, “Woah, maybe Dr. Zwig is crazy! First he said most psychology is bad science, and in the next breath he said it’s the royal road to enlightenment. What gives?” The problem isn’t the intent of psychology, namely, to study the mind and develop ways to help people based on what’s discovered. The problem is the paradigm—the model that psychologists use to try to understand people. At its core it’s deeply flawed.
Psychology Fails the Test
A few years ago an international review study in which 270 researchers on five continents, including the U.S., examined a hundred research reports in the most prestigious psychology journals, and what they discovered was shocking: Only thirty-six percent of the findings held up when the experiments were redone. Since then a plethora of analyses have been done that reveal how most psychology experiments are based on faulty science.
The situation is obviously alarming. You’d think the great academic institutions of America and abroad would know how to train psychology doctoral students in the scientific method, but apparently, this isn’t the case. If you ask researchers anywhere in the world whether they have a problem reproducing experiments in biology, chemistry, or physics, they will tell you, no. So, what’s up with psychology?
Objectivity in Psychology is Subjective
To provide answers, I turn to Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor and astronomer, who famously said that he could lift the Earth off its foundation if he were given one solid place to stand and a long enough lever. Philosophers call this kind of hypothetical vantage point an “Archimedean point.” It’s the place from which you can objectively perceive something in its totality. You can completely remove yourself from what you wish to study, observe and understand it in relation to other things, remain independent of it, and have no unintended influence on your findings. You can see it like it truly is.
This notion of pure objectivity lies at the heart of science. To create a scientific theory, a scientist has to form a hypothesis, test it, try to refute it, modify it, analyze the results, and then decide whether they support or undermine her idea. The method doesn’t use opinion or guesswork, but rather inquiry based on systematic observation, measurement, and experiment. A scientific theory isn’t, therefore, some kind of dreamy and unreliable speculation, a philosophical viewpoint, or a personal feeling; it’s an explanation based on a rigorously tested set of objective observations. When a scientist does research it’s like she’s standing behind a thick glass wall that separates her from what she’s studying. Every experiment is designed to eliminate her own opinions as well as all other conflicting variables so that she can arrive at an objective conclusion.
So why doesn’t this method work in psychology? Why can’t we simply apply it like they do in the other sciences? Well, here’s the problem: Unlike all other fields of science, psychology is unique in that the human mind is both subject and object. In other words, the object being studied—the mind—is the same thing as that which is studying it—the mind. The mind is studying itself. This is the polar opposite of having an Archimedean point of view. If there’s one thing we can never completely remove ourselves from to attain an outside vantage point it’s our own minds. No matter what we sense, perceive, think, feel, and know about ourselves and the world we’re inextricably entangled with our own consciousness. There’s no position outside of this from which to put forth any other hypothesis. Even the most transcendent spiritual experience must happen within the mind’s awareness.
Psychological Research is Ideology, Not Science
I’ve never seen a psychological study that didn’t involve some form of philosophical prejudice, personal ideology, or subjective viewpoint on the part of the researcher. It’s just the nature of the game—it’s built in. In fact, in psychological research the entire notion of objectivity goes out the window. Even the questions we put to the test grow out of our personal psychological, cultural, and philosophical makeups.
The Psychologist’s Fallacy
This dilemma was first described in 1890 by philosopher and psychologist William James, who proposed something called the ‘psychologist’s fallacy:’ He wrote: “The great snare of the psychologist is the confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report. I shall hereafter call this the ‘psychologist’s fallacy’ par excellence.”
This applies not only to research but to practice, as well. Every time a clinical psychologist automatically assumes his interpretation of a client’s behavior represents the objective nature of that behavior he commits this fallacy. The fallacy grows out of a flawed premise known as ‘intersubjective confusion’ or ‘confusion of standpoints.’ This happens when the psychologist fails to account for the fact that every individual has an utterly unique process.
My Way or the Highway
Psychologists suffer from the same thing most of us suffer from, namely, the conviction that one’s own perceptions represent objective reality. Psychology education and training amplify this error by offering simplistic, prepackaged explanations for peoples’ problems. The result is that most psychologists rely on formulaic strategies that are only effective if the client happens to click with that particular way of looking at things. Often what happens is that the client just goes along with whatever the psychologist says because he’s seen as an authority figure.
Psychology 101 is Philosophy 101
Introductory psychology courses teach that everyone is unique, however, this notion gets swept aside pretty fast. By the time you get your diploma you’ve bought into the idea that there’s some kind of psychological users manual for life, and the psychologist’s job is to get his clients in synch with it. In reality, most clinical psychology is nothing but the institutionalization of philosophical, cultural, and subjective notions of how people should be. It has few of the hallmarks of real science.
Mental Health Diagnosis is Make-Believe Medicine
The most glaring example of all of this is the concept of mental illness. The whole idea is a take-off from medicine’s concept of disease entities. A disease entity is a set of signs, symptoms, and biochemical markers that can be distinguished from all other signs, symptoms, and biochemical markers. In order to differentiate data and identify a disease medicine relies on a deep understanding of how the body works and hundreds of studies on the specific questions they wish to answer. When researchers identify a new medical illness it’s like they’re drawing metaphorical lines in the sand, decisively separating one set of parameters from all the others.
When psychologists come up with a new illness, on the other hand, they do so without any such kind of research; in fact, they present no underlying principles or processes. They simply reach a consensus as to which symptoms appear to fit together into a cluster. It’s like medicine was in the 1800s before germs were discovered; symptoms were classified and treated without any knowledge of what was causing them. Every new edition of the psychology diagnostic manual shifts around the symptoms, diseases, and treatments because they’re based on the intuitions of ‘experts,’ not on actual research. In this sense, psychologists are drawing metaphorical lines in a bucket of water; there’s simply no evidence or foundation for their claims.
Psychology’s Evidence-less Foundation
A medical disease is a distinct entity that’s identified after a long and rigorous set of experiments and analyses. In contrast, there has never actually been a study that confirms the existence of a mental illness as a distinct psychological entity. Not one! We all agree that someone can feel depressed, anxious, compulsive, suicidal, or act completely nuts, but the idea that these are “diseases” with precisely demarcated features and underlying mechanisms just like medical diseases has absolutely no scientific basis. In fact, all attempts at proving the existence of these supposed disorders have failed.
Applying the medical paradigm to psychology doesn’t work because the mind is qualitatively different from everything physical, including the human body. Mental / emotional symptoms are intangible, fluid processes of meaning, not physical processes with measurable quantitative parameters like medical diseases are. When the mind studies itself using conventional science methods, all it’s doing is exposing its own beliefs, prejudices, and assumptions.
NIMH Directors Speak Out
Steven Hyman, past director of the National Institute of Mental Health, the world’s largest funding agency for research into mental health, first began expressing concerns about the psychology diagnostic manual (known as DSM) more than a decade ago. He noted that its categories had been invented to provide a common language for psychiatrists but had never been intended as more than useful constructs, placeholders, until psychiatry could develop real knowledge, objective measures like they have in medicine.
Thomas Insel, recent NIMH director, psychiatrist, and neuroscientist also weighed in on the flimsy nature of psychological diagnosis. In his blog on April 29, 2013, he said psychological diagnoses lack validity because they describe symptoms without any information about what’s causing them. It would be like making a diagnosis of “Chest Pain” or “Headache.” Chest pain and headache are symptoms, not diseases. In order to diagnose a disease, the underlying mechanisms must be identified, but the psychology manual doesn’t do this. Why? Because there’s no such medical entity as a “mental illness” in the first place. Depressive Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Obssessive-Complusive Disorder, etc. name symptoms (feeling depressed, anxious, obsessive) not diseases.
The fact that drug companies figured out how to mask one’s symptoms says nothing about what’s creating one’s problems. People think that if a drug numbs their mental pain then it must mean the brain mechanism behind the problem is understood, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite psychiatry and big pharma’s billion dollar campaigns to convince the public that mental health issues are caused by a brain disorder there are no studies that actually demonstrate this. Every research report about the brain and mental health qualifies its findings with the phrases, “could be,” “may be,” “is thought to be,” “might be,” and so on. This is because causation has never been demonstrated. It’s also why psychological diagnoses are made through questionnaires, not medical exams.
Let’s Get Stoned
FDA clinical trials have demonstrated that most of the effect of psychiatric medication is placebo, and the remaining effect comes not from correcting specific brain abnormalities that produce mental symptoms but from something entirely different: These drugs contain psychoactive ingredients that induce complex, varied, and unpredictable physical and mental states that people experience as general, not as distinct, targeted, therapeutic effects. In other words, the drugs don’t correct a specific brain problem, rather they put the person into a generalized altered state that takes his mind somewhere else and thereby suppresses his symptoms.
Jeremy’s Muteness *
Jeremy was a twenty-year-old man who came to my practice in Zurich at the insistence of his parents and doctors. He had stopped speaking, wouldn’t go to his university classes, and had withdrawn into his apartment. Three doctors had given him three different diagnoses—Selective Mutism, PTSD, and Catatonia. Find out how I helped this young man turn his life around in my blog post, How Jeremy Broke Out of his Muteness. Instead of thinking he had a mental illness I viewed his withdrawn state as a meaningful communication process to work with; this led us to transformative solutions.
*Client names have been changed.