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Written by Andrew Neff

February 2019

Psychiatry Needs Art

What researchers can learn from people in the humanities


In the 1990’s, computers overtook us humans in chess, in the 2010’s, technology smoked Jeopardy phenom Ken Jennings in trivia; eventually, technology will surpass us at all the things once considered accomplishable by human genius alone.  But not yet, in most cases the neural computations underlying our thoughts can’t yet be made explicit, scientific, technologically replicable. The human brain, and resulting psychology, is itself one of those things that isn’t yet solved.  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 they were, 20% of us wouldn’t be experiencing a mental illness in any given year.

So, when it comes to improving our understanding human 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?


Practically, psychological research has a pretty limited relationship with the arts and humanities.  Sure, various forms of psychologists are interested art: either looking to art creation as a form of therapy, or the reception of art as a window into the basic structures of human perception.  But the content, what artists are saying, is rarely, at least explicitly, taken 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? Below, a few things that scientists could learn from people in the arts and humanities.


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Exploring the Limitations of Reductive Language

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, the obstacles to bringing new concepts into research limits the range of discussion that can be had, as psychological language is much smaller than ordinary languages - reductive, you might say.

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 the same, not good.  So there are clear advantages to having a limited, mutually agreed upon set of terms on which to conduct research.  And using these terms then becomes important, as publishing a paper, or receiving grant funding is often greatly facilitated by ones willingness to exist within the current paradigm.


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 aesthetics would be clunky and horrible, for sure, but maybe, more importantly, there’s a lot of subtlety to ordinary language, that if appreciated, could bring us closer to a more complete scientific understanding of who people are.

Context - Elaborating on the Richness of Lived Experience 

A major challenge in any science is to isolate the variable you’re interested in.  Scientists go to great lengths to avoid accidentally measuring something besides what they’re aiming for.  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 in one small detail, that 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-mindedness.

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 - some have negative emotional quality, say, a gauze-wrapped burn victim.  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 than is being acknowledged.  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 technical 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 by 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 scientists.  But for now, neuroscience and psychiatry can’t provide rational, theoretically-inspired, biological treatments for mental illness.  What art can offer science are fresh perspectives on humanity, born from a culture where creativity and independence are encouraged, and a grounding in the reality of everyday lived experience.  In a time when we know the old institutions have given all they can, and when the leading thinkers in the world of psychiatry have decided things need to be shaken up, it seems clear that alternative perspectives outside the halls of academia should be taken very seriously.

Which is why we, at Mind and Brain Illustrated, are looking to hear from people in the arts and humanities - we want to know what you think psychologists need to know.  We’ve released two additional writing prompts in our jobs section, and we’re offering $50 for accepted articles. Additionally, if you have an idea on how people in the arts and humanities can help psychologists, we may be open to that as well.  Have a look at the section for more details, and we’re hoping to hear from you!


  • Person Icon - Maria Cruz, wikipedia

  • Heart icon by overtheborderline

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