The Necessity of Psychotherapy

Years ago I wrote an essay about the death of psychotherapy. While I did not state that psychotherapy is currently dead, I did state that much of it might die in the wake of advances in understanding the neurobiology of psychological disorders. It will take decades for these advances to occur (if they ever do) so this post will now serve to balance my post from years ago.

I’m going to start with a story about two people (these are based on real events but names, situations, and identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality). Jim was convicted of a violent crime and spent a number of years in prison. He was required to attend treatment throughout his years in prison – anger management and other therapies. He had a history of alcohol and drug abuse. A while after he got out of prison, he started therapy again to help him through some difficulties, including his experiences with homelessness. Jim was a very pleasant person to interact with; he was well-read and insightful. He was trying to improve his life.

The second person was named Frank. He was also homeless but was staying with a friend. He had past drug and alcohol abuse but had been free from drugs for about a year. He was anxious, paranoid, and not the most pleasant person to interact with. He had never received treatment for depression, which he experienced chronically and severely. He exhibited little insight into his problems. He thought the negative events in his life were all someone or something else’s fault.

The first patient had learned a lot from his psychotherapy over the years. The second never had therapy. While they were very different people, they experienced similar challenges and psychological issues over the years. Without disregarding individual differences, the patient who had had years of therapy had a lot of insight and self-knowledge but the other patient had very little.

Jim had been a violent man but over the years and through therapy, he learned a great deal of self-control and restraint. Psychotropic medications could not have taught Jim this. For him, psychotherapy was highly successful. Without out it he might not have been the pleasant person that he was.

Therapy teaches you skills; it gives you tools to deal with maladaptive thoughts and behaviors. It allows you opportunity to sort through your experiences and thoughts in a safe place. It allows to to talk to someone else without being judged. Therapy is thus treatment and education. It can have as strong or stronger effects on mood and behavior as medications and the benefits can last longer. Understanding biology is necessary to understand behavior but it is not sufficient to explain all behavior, at least not with our current knowledge. Will we ever had sufficiently advanced knowledge of neuroscience and biology to no longer need psychotherapy? I don’t know but if we do, it won’t happen for many years.

Psychobiology and Social Psychology

There are at least two big trends in social psychology, or at least ones that may great affect social psychology. Currently, at least according to Berntson and Cacioppo (2000), one of the fastest growing trends in psychology as a whole is psychobiology. This trend is also seen in social psychology. Another movement is that of the internet (McKenna & Bargh, 2000). As the legitimacy of the internet grew, there was more research interest in it and more interest in using it for research purposes. I will first discuss psychobiology and then the internet. I will finish with my prediction of where social psychology is going.

I think psychobiology is a growing area in part because of the many technological advances that are being applied to psychology (namely, brain imaging and computer modeling). Psychology is becoming a technology-driven science. I think that social psychology will all move this way because of the new ways to study the concepts of social psychology. In part, it provides new ways to research “old” topics, not that anything in social psychology is that old.

Researchers can now look at biological foundations of social behavior and perception. For example, maybe there is a certain area of the brain that is activated when people name racial stereotypes. Also, there could be a different area activated when people are asked what stereotypes they believe, if any. Maybe people who say they do not believe the stereotypes still have the same area of the brain activated as those who do believe them, but in addition they could have additional brain activity associated with suppressing those stereotypes. Knowing this would help us understand that stereotypes really are prevalent, but some people are just really good at suppressing them and don’t even know that they are doing it. I know this was a slightly vague hypothesis, but my point is that psychobiology has a lot to add the social psychology.

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