Friday, March 12, 2010

Intellectual Lineage & the Sources of Therapeutic Ideas

It was hard to think of a title for this post; really, this is a bit of a philosophical ramble.  It's the type of title I might sometimes poke fun at, it sounds like something you might find in an overly serious scholarly journal. To some degree this post is a sequel to my previous one. 

Psychotherapy, while not religious in a dogmatic sense (unless there is some form of religiosity infused into an individual practioner's style), contains many ideas which are dealt with or contemplated by philosophers or theologians.  Many ideas in psychotherapeutic styles are inspired by religious or literary metaphor, which can be rich sources of insight about the human condition.

If there are borrowings from any type of religious thinking, we could in turn say that the religions themselves "borrowed" ideas (such as regarding compassion, altruism, meaning, etc.) from other thinkers or cultural influences of the day.  Most religions finally have quite similar values in this regard, with stylistic variations from one culture to the next (even within the same religion).  Much theological writing and thinking in this era is, in turn, influenced by secular philosophy, including such pragmatic secular philosophies as contained in cognitive-behavioural therapeutic theory.

The history of human creativity is deeply rooted in borrowing, or referring to, creative ideas generated by others.  Mozart or Beethoven did this with music.  Einstein did this in physics.  Shakespeare did this with language.  New religions are substantially influenced by "borrowings" from other religions. Art, architecture, engineering, etc. are all imaginatively influenced by work (either whole pieces of work, or mere fragments of a whole) that others have done before.  There is a type of "family tree" with respect to ideas, in which we can trace the lineage or ancestry of most any creative or intellectual work.  The degree to which a new thinker ought to give overt credit to the ancestry of his or her ideas is open to some debate, I suppose.  Sometimes the ancestry might not even be part of the conscious awareness of the author.

The very language I am currently using has its origins in a type of linguistic family tree, in the Indo-European family of languages.  The shape of the letters of our alphabet derives substantially from Egyptian hieroglyphics (a delightful area to learn about, see or or ):  for example, various letters of our alphabet derived from symbols the ancient Egyptians used, which resembled animals or objects in the environment; the letter A comes from a picture of an ox head; the letter m from waves in water; the letter o from an eye; the letter D from a symbol representing a door, etc.

Yet I do not feel compelled to include footnotes referring to Egyptian hieroglyphics every time I use letters of the modern alphabet.

I find most styles of psychotherapy to be helpful in particular ways, and in particular situations.  One has to acknowledge the strong evidence base showing that CBT, for example, is useful, particularly for the treatment of specific anxiety symptoms.   I find these ideas to be highly recommended in approaching most any life difficulty.  However, I have found CBT on its own to be very unsuccessful in helping people with chronic, treatment-refractory symptoms.  Research studies generating empirical support for CBT are geared towards showing rapid symptom improvement in non-refractory disorders.  In fact, the very lack of success of CBT can magnify the sense of hopelessness and despair in chronic, treatment-refractory conditions.  Tangible benefits in treatment-refractory conditions may sometimes be measurable on mood questionnaires, but many tangible benefits may come from a broader evaluation of finding a reason to live despite unchanging symptoms; such questions about "reasons to live" are rarely present on questionnaires, or at least would often not be weighted highly.  Yet such an issue is often the most integral daily question faced by a person with a severe chronic illness. 

An approach to being present with unremitting symptoms, as a therapist or as a patient, without losing a sense of meaning or connection, is very important, in my experience.  Stories from those who have endured such suffering are relevant in encouraging a hopeful or life-affirming attitude.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thank you for the entry. It was great. I wasn't even thinking that I was borrowing these very letters from an old system.

I still maintain that authority of science over religion (or philosophy for that matter) has lead to "stealing" ideas as opposed to borrowing them and giving credit. Science has turned away from its parents, religion and philosophy.

Why steal? Because our society operates on economic principles at its very basis and we can't admit that or else we have to share profits, not to mention sharing power and authority with people or worldviews we consider beneath us.

Scientists are very good at crediting other ones. You have to be very meticulous at crediting other authors.

Mindfulness is one example. We have "known" about this for hundreds or thousands of years, from philosophy but specially religious practices. However, there have not been any "research" on it. So suddenly a couple of decades of research and psychologists are praising it like it has just been discovered. It's becoming part of all kinds of treatments such as CBT, and is a major leg of ACT.

I consider this an arrogant rejection of tradition and history.

Don't get me wrong, I am put off by arrogance of people who use religion or philosophy...or tradition to look down on others, no less. Some religious people's rejection of science is no less narrow-minded.

I wish there was a way for people to look at it all and see it all as simply "human" and put narcissism and issues of power/authority aside. This is not to say all approaches are as good in every situation...far from it.

Perhaps it all comes down to psychology of people. Maybe we need to have our needs met, for self-esteem (authority), for food and shelter (hence money). Maybe it has to do with fear. I don't know.