Sunday, January 16, 2011

No More Wire Mothers

from John Keatley
The clinical director of my post-doctoral training program made a comment that stuck with me. We were talking about Marsha Linehan and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Many see DBT as a panacea for all different sorts of problems. Evidence based therapy suggests that it would actually be unethical to use a different sort of treatment. Joe reminded us that 30 years ago, prior to DBT ever being thought of, psychologists were successfully treating Borderline Personality Disorder. Sure, we might look back on what we did 30 years ago with a little horror. 30 years from now we'll look back on some of the things we are doing now (maybe even DBT) and have that same sense of horror. How could we do that?

What were psychologists doing 50 years ago? They were building wire mother monkeys. I can't believe that's not the first thing you thought of. Harry Harlow spend years with rhesus monkeys doing various kinds of experiments. Most look back now in horror at his experiments. These are some of the experiments that brought on the development of our modern code of animal welfare laws in research.

50 years ago, this was amazing stuff. As Deborah Blum writes in her book Love at Goon Park, the psychological establishment in the 1950s believed that babies were drawn only to their mothers for milk and were motivated by a survival drive. The prevailing belief was that children were harmed by too much affection. The truths most take for granted now were far from the truth in Harlow's time. Infants need the love, attention, and physical contact from their parents.

What else did did the field offer up? Here are two more vintage clips. The first is Fritz Perls:

And of course, how could I not pay homage to B.F. Skinner and his pigeons:

These three people (some day I'll have to write about Fritz's wife, Lara, who always seems to be forgotten) were all revolutionary. From their own different perspectives, they encouraged psychologists and society at large to think about things in a new way. There ideas seem outdated now or even quaint. Much of what they have taught us has entered into our common knowledge and we couldn't even imagine a time where these things weren't known and thought about.

It seems like psychology hasn't really done much to capture the imagination of society. I'm hard pressed to think about contemporary psychology that has the potential to enter into the Zeitgeist of society and transform the way we think about ourselves.

Linehan, for example, is producing a marvelous technology that helps alleviate the suffering of many. There are countless other psychologists who are busy creating manuals and replicating studies that can help the most people with the most symptoms in the most efficient ways. This is all great. Really. I'm all for less suffering.

I'm left wanting for psychology to find new ways to inspire us to be more than we thought we can. Anyone have any suggestions of ideas from psychology that are entering into our shared Zeitgeist?

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