Headcase - Do you hear what I hear?

Psychology undertakes some new directions

Three recent newspaper articles have reported some especially interesting findings in the psychology field and, in some ways, have also demonstrated the way the field itself is changing.

For example, the March 27 issue of the Chicago Tribune included an article by Ronald Kutlak on the relatively new field called experimental existential psychology, or XXP, which deals primarily with the study of how people find meaning and purpose in their lives.

"A topic that was once the province of poets and philosophers," Kutlak writes, "can now be examined under the cold light of science." One recent journal article that described XXP experiments was titled "Introducing Science to the Psychology of the Soul."

In a way, languaging of that type is a return to psychology's original meaning as "study of the soul." The soul has long been inappropriately spiritualized because of religious use of the term and the concept has been banished from most psychology, which has focused more on behavior than the search for meaning.

XXP's most interesting experiments demonstrate the profound effect thoughts of one's own death have. This is particularly timely since the Sept. 11 attacks and the ongoing "war on terrorism" have caused people to reflect frequently on their own inevitable deaths.

Experiments so far validate exactly what has long been theorized to explain the Bush administration's continual evocation of 9/11: "When people are reminded of their own deaths, they become more patriotic, more conservative, more family-oriented, more security-minded."

In one experiment just before the 2004 election, a group of college students was asked who it favored for president. A slight majority favored John Kerry over George Bush. When the students were reminded of terrorism and their personal mortality, support shifted substantially to George Bush. Similarly, students who identified as conservative opposed use of nuclear weapons against terrorists – until they were reminded of their own deaths.

In the world of the ancient Greeks, the soul was associated with death and the underworld. It was understood to be the means by which people realized meaning in life. It's fascinating to see science turn in that same direction.

An example of psychology and psychiatry's changing credibility is the March 27 article, "Can You Live with the Voices in Your Head?" in the New York Times Magazine. Daniel B. Smith's exploration of a grassroots British organization called the Hearing Voices Network is a mind-blowing deconstruction of our notions of normality.

The organization, which conducts self-help groups that have lately taken root in the United States, disputes the theory that "the psychological anguish caused by hearing voices is indicative of an overarching mental illness." Even more controversial, the group regards auditory hallucinations "as a meaningful, interpretable experience, intimately linked to a hearer's life story."

Hearing voices is diagnosed as part of schizophrenia in about 80 percent of cases. (The remaining 20 percent are blamed on mania, depression and organic causes.) In the usual treatment, which has been mainly pharmaceutical since the '70s, patients have been encouraged not to pay attention to the content of the voices. As Smith documents, the interpretation of voices in Freudian psychoanalysis – the earlier treatment of choice – was a disaster that often seemed to increase symptoms.

What seems to be emerging in Britain is a wary alliance between the HVN and cognitive-behavioral psychologists, who teach patients how to more effectively respond to the voices without exploring the content in depth but without necessarily diagnosing mental illness.

This is a welcome example of the way "normality" is being redefined by consumers with the help of some people in the psychological profession. Psychiatry, after all, has a long and dubious history of inappropriately pathologizing everyone from runaway slaves to homosexuals.

Finally, an article in the Feb. 27 issue of the Detroit Free Press reports on a study of 16,475 college students who took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006. The finding? About 30 percent more students scored above average on the narcissism scale.

Researchers blame the increase on the "self-esteem movement" that emerged in the me-me-me 1980s and has never effectively distinguished between healthy and excessive self-interest. They also blame overly permissive parenting.

Lack of empathy, overcontrolling behavior, aggressive reaction to criticism and favoring self-promotion above helping others are common traits of the narcissistic personality. Another study reports on a freshman study at UCLA. About 75 percent of students think it is important to be "very well-off financially," compared with 62.5 percent in 1980 and 42 percent in 1966.

Throw away those self-help and get-rich-quick books and listen to the voice of your soul, people!

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.

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