Why Psychology Matters
The brain doesn’t think. The person thinks.
Posted May 28, 2020
Psychology is often derided as being a soft non-science, mere common sense glorified, and less consequential than other disciplines in accounting for the order of things. One common argument holds that the mind—psychology’s chief domain—is but the product of biological brain processes, and therefore secondary or even redundant to them. A second common critique argues that the facts don’t care if you believe in them, which means that physical reality on some level trumps psychological process. If the train runs over you, you will die, regardless of what you feel, think, believe, or expect.
Both arguments are not useless. Biological processes indeed underlie psychology. Biological changes in the brain will often produce psychological changes. A stroke will affect your memory and mood. Likewise, matter often trumps mind. Should it hit you, the train will indeed kill you, regardless of your feelings and thoughts.
Yet these arguments also leak, badly, in several places.
First, while we know with fair assurance that both biological and psychological phenomena exist and tend to go together, we know little about the mechanisms of connection between them. As the psychologist Gregory Miller of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign notes: “Relevant science abounds with demonstrations that we take to imply causal relationships between psychology and biology. The 'how' of those causal relationships—the mechanisms—remain a mystery, yet we often write as if we know the mechanisms in scholarly literature and in popular media.” Moreover, existing evidence suggests strongly that the brain-mind link is reciprocal. That is, while brain changes can alter mind processes, changes we might think of as happening "in the mind" (for example in the course of talk therapy) can alter the brain.
Second, even if we accept that biology produces psychology, we still cannot equate the two or reduce the latter to the former. The tree is a product of the seed, but the properties and qualities of the tree cannot be equated with, or reduced to, the properties and qualities of the seed. One useful way to think about this, offered by psychologist Tania Lombrozo of UC Berkeley, employs the metaphor of baking: “A theory of baking wouldn't be very useful if it were formulated in terms of molecules and atoms. As bakers, we want to understand the relationship between—for example—mixing and texture, not between kinetic energy and protein hydration. The relationships between the variables we can tweak and the outcomes that we care about happen to be mediated by chemistry and physics, but it would be a mistake to adopt 'cake reductionism' and replace the study of baking with the study of physical and chemical interactions among cake components.”
Third, while facts may not care about how you feel, you do. This is important because without a "you," to regard them, facts matter not at all. One can argue that in the absence of the human mind, facts, in the way we perceive and measure them, cease to exist entirely. Moreover, facts, powerful as they may be, often lack the power to change minds. This is important because we tend to act based on what's in our mind. On the pragmatic, experiential level, things affect us mostly in terms of their symbolic psychological representation—not their actual physical properties.
What we fear most is not what’s most dangerous, but what’s most scary. Thus, as the British sociologist Philip Strong noted: “fear and suspicion may be wholly separate from the reality of the disease. Just as HIV spread silently for several years before anyone was aware of its presence, so it is possible for great waves of panic and fear to spread among a population even when almost no-one has actually been infected.” While facts may not care what you believe, your belief is itself a fact, and can create other facts, other independent effects in the world. Fear, in other words, creates its own danger.
Ironically, it is often our experience with physical phenomena or objects that brings the importance of the psychological dimension into relief. Take, for example, the current coronavirus pandemic. True, this virus is a biological fact. True, it may kill you regardless of your psychology. But the mere awareness of the virus, like an awareness of anything, is psychological. Our most consequential experience in light of this awareness—dread—is psychological. Further, ask yourself: What determines our attitudes and actions regarding this pandemic? Are we moved primarily by the objective aspects of the situation—like the number of deaths or lost jobs? The answer is probably "no."
For a useful thought experiment, we may compare the current crisis to 9/11. If we go by objective, factual parameters—the number of dead and those directly affected, the economic impact in dollars, lost productivity and unemployment numbers, etc.—this current crisis dramatically dwarfs 9/11 in scale. Yet it may not end up dramatically dwarfing 9/11 in the national consciousness, or leaving a more traumatic and vivid national memory. How could that possibly be? The answer is, again, psychology.
First, 9/11 was an intentional, manmade attack, specifically targeted. Research suggests that we are more vulnerable to experience the harsh effects of trauma with manmade events than with natural disasters. We seem to feel that a forest fire started intentionally by a person is worse than a similar-sized fire started by lightning.
This is in part because we understand that there’s nothing personal about nature. Nature doesn’t have a choice. People do. And these people have chosen to attack us. This scares us more, perhaps because an intentional predator is more effective than an incidental one. It also gives rise to the question: Why? With that comes inevitable doubt: Did we do something wrong to invite or justify this? With doubt come other injured, indignant feelings, and we care more about that which engages our feelings.
Second, at the level of psychological experience, visuals matter. Things that look scary scare us more than things that don’t even have a look. That’s why a tornado is scary and a heatwave is not, even though the latter is a more proficient killer. Things that photograph better on TV get more play and leave deeper marks—that’s why movie stars are iconic while character actors are not, regardless of acting chops. We demarcate our path through life with vivid images and memories as signposts. A picture of a man dying in a hospital bed may not be able to compete for emotional impact with a picture of a man jumping to his death from the 90th floor of a burning tower.
Third, 9/11 happened at once, while the pandemic unfolded more slowly. Speed and suddenness more easily provoke our fear response, regardless of the objective level of danger. Coronavirus is much more of a threat to ordinary Americans than Al Qaeda ever was, yet a slowly moving event is not as memorable as a sudden one.
Moreover, since the current pandemic is a longer-lasting event than 9/11, a rational yet psychologically uninformed analysis would predict that it will surely be remembered as more devastating. Alas, such conclusion would be quite premature. Psychological research has shown that how we experience things can be quite different than how we remember them. Memory, for one, involves a phenomenon known as duration neglect. Our memory of past events, it turns out, is shaped by their peak-intensity moments and by how they ended, while their duration is discounted. If the coronavirus crisis ends well (with a vaccine, effective herd immunity, or a speedy economic resurgence, for example) it may be remembered by many as less traumatic than how it is being experienced.
Finally, 9/11 unified the country in a feeling of national resolve and shared resilience. One may assume that this was a reaction to the devastating loss of innocent American lives. Yet coronavirus, having killed many more innocents, has not resulted in the same degree of unification sentiment. Coronavirus dead are not held up as martyrs. Why? Again here, the answers are in part psychological.
First, our deepest protective impulses are communal, not individual, because no individual human has ever survived and developed entirely outside of (or without) a surrounding group. Under attack, baby runs to mother, and mother fights to protect baby. That dynamic is replayed in adulthood and on every level. When outsiders attack, our deepest impulse toward safety is activated and we move to "circle the wagons," in effect returning home to our most basic identification, the family writ large.
However, the definitions of "the other" and "our tribe" shift with the circumstances. Injury, in other words, is always processed psychologically in the context of its source. 9/11 manifested an outside threat to America from another tribe, and so we coalesced around our American tribe. The pandemic, on the other hand, does not constitute an intentional attack by other tribes—a virus has no intentions.
Moreover, combating the virus requires us, quite literally, to separate from each other, in effect turning our neighbors into potential "others," the main source of risk. This compels us to shift the definition of "our tribe" from "All Americans" to "those Americans we feel closest to," those who share more of our specific values, beliefs, and judgments. Hence the national splintering into warring political, socioeconomic, and regional factions we're witnessing now.
If you understand my argument here about the primacy of psychology, that understanding is enabled by your biological brain. But, as the great philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz once said: “The brain doesn’t think. The person thinks. Sometimes.”
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