Why Psychologists Should Care about the Arts and Humanities

February 14, 2020

A woman looking up with snakes coming out of her head like Medusa.
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In the 1990s, computers overtook us, humans, in chess. In the 2010s, technology smoked Jeopardy phenom Ken Jennings in trivia. Now, self-driving cars are delivering passengers more safely than they themselves do. Eventually, technology will surpass us in all the areas once considered accomplishable by human genius alonebut not yet. So, when it comes to improving our understanding of psychology, do we trust the behavioral insights created by our techno-capital overlords?

Do we look to physicians and academic journals? Or do we do what humans have done for centuries, and look for ideas in the arts and humanities? Pavlov or Tolstoy? Milgram or Twain? Don Draper or the researcher whose data Don Draper didn’t ever trust?

In most cases the neural computations underlying thoughts, aren’t yet technologically replicable. Despite an economy that increasingly relies on Google and Facebook’s behavioral insights, and centuries of research in academic and clinical psychology, human beings are not very predictable. If we were, 20% of us wouldn’t be experiencing a mental illness in any given year.

Practically, psychological research has a pretty limited relationship with the arts and humanities. Sure, various forms of psychologists are interested in art: either looking to creation as a form of therapy, or the reception of creativity as a window into the basic structures of human perception. But the content, what artists are saying, is rarely taken explicitly into consideration. Creative writers, cultural critics, certain brands of philosophers—lots of people are trying to understand humans, they’re just taking a vastly different approach from research psychologists. Might we be missing out on valuable perspectives by ignoring a major swathe of human thinking? And if so, just what exactly are researchers missing out on?

A woman looking up with snakes coming out of her head like Medusa.

“Mortal” by Rachel Derum

Lets look at a few things that scientists could learn from people in the arts and humanities shall we?

Exploring the Limitations of Psych Lingo

Psychologists have their own language to describe human experience. Before a word can be brought into common usage, there’s typically a rigorous set of “validation” procedures required. The value of this practice aside, culturally, as psychological terminology is much more reductive than ordinary languages, it is an obstacle to bringing new concepts into research

Having a common language is a core principle of the current psychiatric diagnostic system. Without it, researchers might be studying the same concept, but calling it something different, or studying a different concept, but calling it by the same name—not good. So there are clear advantages to having a limited, mutually agreed-upon set of terms on which to conduct research. Also, using these terms is important when it comes to things like publishing a paper, or receiving grant funding, which are facilitated by one’s willingness to play by the rules embedded into the current paradigm, but there’s a cost.

But the drive for a limited, common set of concepts could also have the side-effect of limiting individual creativity. Imagine trying to write a novel, or any descriptive account of a person, using only terms in common usage in academic psychology. The narrative would be clunky at best, as inaccurate as the DSM-V at worst. There’s a lot of subtlety to ordinary language that, if appreciated, could bring us closer to a more complete scientific understanding of who we all are, which which be a great help to those who are currently misunderstood by psychiatrists.

Elaborating on the Richness of Life

A major challenge in any science is to isolate the variables in which one’s interested. Scientists go to great lengths to avoid accidentally measuring something other than that which they’re targeting. For example, they try to recruit research subjects randomly, so there’s no group bias, and they include control conditions, that theoretically replicate everything in a testing condition except for one small detail, which is the detail they’re trying to measure. So, focus, it’s a major goal of scientific research. But it’s possible that what’s glorified as focus, can at times be rightly criticized as closed-minded.

Much of behavioral psychology, particularly that used by neuroscientists, relies on a group of tasks that have been developed over the past century. One example is the use of positively, and negatively themed emotional pictures. In this task, subjects are shown a series of images: some have positive emotional quality—say, a baby laughing—and some have negative emotional quality, like a burn victim perhaps. Neuroscientists will often record brain responses to positive and negative images, and interpret the response as the experience of positive or negative emotions.

But there’s a lot of concern that what’s being measured during these tasks is more complex; for example: a subject’s emotional state going into the study, distractions by a nagging problem in work or school, or maybe whether that subject feels like they’re socially pressured to feel sorry for a burn victim, and so on. The range of experiences a research subject brings into a study is large, and is often unknowable at a scientific level.

Might it be that some of what we’re measuring is understandable to individual research subjects; particularly, to those who have made careers out of trying to understand the complexity and nuance of everyday lived experience? If subjects aren’t always experiencing what an experimenter thinks they are, and people are capable of grasping these things at an intuitive level, then neuroscientists would benefit from listening to alternative perspectives on the richness of research subjects’ lived experience.

The future of helping humans lead happier and more peaceful lives will eventually fall on the shoulders of technocrats. For now, neuroscience, and psychiatry, can’t provide a rational, theoretically-inspired, biological treatment for mental illness. What art can offer science are fresh perspectives on humanity, born from a culture where creativity and independence are encouraged, grounded in the reality of everyday life. In a time when we know the old institutions have given all they could, and when the leading thinkers in the world of psychology have decided things need to be shaken up, it seems clear that alternative perspectives, outside the halls of academia, should be taken seriously.

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