The Death of Psychotherapy

I’m going to preface my post by stating that the following post was written to help me think through the relationship between neuroscience and therapy. As such, it is a philosophical journey through some of my thoughts and is not even necessarily what I really believe because I’m still working on discovering what I believe. Thought processes like this are one way I try to keep some of my beliefs about psychology and neuroscience balanced. If I start leaning too strongly one way, I’ll start looking for things that disconfirm those beliefs and see what I discover. It’s a bit of playing the Devil’s Advocate with myself and a bit of philosophizing. Some of my friends and I used to do things like this in junior high and high school – having philosophical discussions where we discussed things and even tried to argue for things that we didn’t necessarily believe (e.g., classic topics such as supposing that this world and universe really aren’t real but are just reflections of reality. Again, that’s not something I believe but we would speculate). What does this all have to do with psychology and neuroscience?

The brain is what drew me to psychology initially. However, I vowed I would never go into clinical psychology because I didn’t think I would like therapy or dealing with people’s problems. Over time I discovered neuropsychology. Most neuropsychologists are clinical psychologists so in order or me to be a neuropsychologist, I had to be trained as a clinical psychologist. There are many things I enjoy about clinical psychology but therapy is not one of those things. Granted, most neuropsychologists do not actually do therapy, but we have to be trained in it. I enjoy talking with people in sessions but I haven’t been that impressed with therapy as a whole so far. Maybe that’s just because I haven’t exactly found the particular type of therapeutic method that really “clicks” with me. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is fine but so much of actual therapy in practice is just plain common sense. However, not everyone has a lot of common sense so they need some training in it. Part of me recognizes the validity of therapy but another part of me struggles with it. Now on to my main article.

The more I study the brain and the more exposure I have to therapy (giving, not receiving), the more biased towards the brain I become. What I mean is that we continue to discover more about the brain and as we discover more, the more behavior we can explain based on biology or neurophysiology and the less important I think therapy is. I’ve written about this topic in the past but wanted to briefly revisit it. This is somewhat of a second chapter to that post. Before I continue I wanted to expose one of my biases; I believe humans have free will. Even though some of my beliefs about the brain could be seen as mechanistic and deterministic, I do not believe that a strongly-biological foundation for behavior rules out free will. You can still assume biological foundations without assuming determinism. If, for example, you have a monistic set of assumptions that incorporates both mind – “nonmaterial” – and body – “material” – in one. [I have quotes around nonmaterial and material because mind is not necessarily nonmaterial and body is not necessarily material, well at least philosophically speaking]. Monism is a similar idea to a unified field theory (e.g., Grand Unified Theory) or the Theory of Everything for which some theoretical physicists are searching. That’s not what I’m going to write about and if it didn’t make sense, then don’t worry about it (I discussed this topic in a couple different posts: here {I linked to that post previously} and here). To summarize, I view behavior through a strong biological bias but I do not assume determinism.

As I said earlier, the more I learn about the brain and behavior (through research and observation), the more I lean towards neuroscience and away from “traditional psychology.” However, I still appreciate the psychosocial aspects of behavior; the nature versus nurture dispute will never be resolved because both are important. The environment is important  – all external stimuli are important – but the problem with downplaying biology is that it is the medium of behavior. What I mean is, everything we think, sense, perceive, or do is translated and transmitted through the firing of neurons. This means that all abnormal behavior, which is what psychologists often are interested in, originates in a neuron or related cell. Whether or not the cause of that behavior was internal or external is irrelevant. All events and stimuli are translated into patterns of neuronal firings.

This is why I think that understanding the biology of the brain is the best way to understand a person’s behavior. However, because we have an imperfect understanding of the biology of the brain, we have an imperfect understand of the biological foundations of behavior. This means that until we have a perfect understanding, we cannot ignore the psychosocial aspects of behavior; even with a perfect understand we couldn’t either because even if we understand the “translation” process we may not understand the origin of what needs to be translated. This is where traditional talk therapy can be most beneficial. However, I still believe less and less that talk therapy is the best solution for dealing with many psychological issues. Over time as we discover more and more about the brain, therapy will become even less important.

That is a fairly radical position to take as a student of clinical psychology – it’s more in line with psychiatry, or rather, I believe it’s more in line with neuroscience. I’m not saying that therapy is useless, I’m just saying that as we gain a more perfect understanding of the brain and how various chemicals interact in the brain, we will have less need for people to help others by “talking” through their problems. The better we understand the physiology of the brain, the more natural our pharmaceuticals will be. In other words, it will be easier to mimic and create normal brain functioning. Of course, many will ask, “What is normal?” That’s a good question.

Some may argue that with depression, for example, many people will have negative image and self-evaluations, which can lead to depression. That is true but it’s the classic chicken and egg question. Which came first? Did the negative thoughts cause the depression or did the person experiencing negative thoughts have a biological predisposition to those thoughts and depression? In other words, it is possible that biology originally led to the negative thoughts and not vice versa. This is all speculation but I think there is increasing evidence for this view.

The big problem with my point though is that at some point, it does become a deterministic system in that it’s possible that we could medicate away people’s free will. This is an unacceptable outcome. There would be a lot of power with this knowledge and many opportunities for abuse. That’s an ethical discussion for a later time.

To summarize, I think that as we (speaking in the collective) gain a more perfect understanding of the brain (and even individual differences in the brain) we will be better able to eradicate and prevent many or most psychological disorders. We could potentially stop schizophrenia through genetic engineering or other modifications. Again, I’m not addressing whether or not we should but I believe we will have the ability to at some point. This is why, at the moment I lean more towards neuroscience than I do psychotherapy. Of course, tomorrow I could [I won’t] write a post that completely contradicts this one. As I said, this is a process. I think it’s important to argue both sides of the issue.

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1 thought on “The Death of Psychotherapy”

  1. I think your analysis is an interesting start. Suppose the human mind is a like a car with a driver. Many accidents (analogous to disease) are “caused” by the mechanical failure of the car’s components. But inside the car is an individual making free will choices and some of the accidents (system failures, disease etc.) are caused by the choices made by the driver. If I am driving and I fail to stop at a stoplight, there is nothing really wrong with the car but the effect is a crash anyway. If you focus too closely on the mechanical component of the human system you begin to ignore the spiritual component. What if I, or my parents or grandparents, just made a bad decision (Who sinned? this man or his parents?) and my “mental” condition is a result of poor choices. Do we then have some sort of system and an implied obligation to rectify every poor choice and thereby negate free will? Do we have to take away the ability of a person to drive a car, merely because the driver might have an accident? Do we develop medicine that, in effect, takes away the need to make choices? Can I choose to be unhappy or depressed?

    Just some thoughts
    James Tanner

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