Sunday, August 13, 2017


Picky is an interesting word.  Allegedly first used in around 1900, it is used to refer to people who are fussy, choosy, demanding... also critical or fault-finding.  The idea is often that someone is focusing on finding fault, rather than being positive or supportive.

Think of animals evolving in a competitive environment, where those best-adapted might survive.  Intelligent animals use internal models of the world, held in their head, to find their way around.  For instance, when you are going for a walk where you live, you rely, in part, on a mini version of your neighbourhood, a kind of map if you like, held in your memory.

If you watch a cat or a bird in your garden, you will notice that they are constantly on the lookout for surprises.  The cat pricks up its ears at all unusual sounds; the bird turns its attention to anything out of the ordinary.  They are being 'picky'.  The function of this kind of attentiveness is to notice, as quickly as possible, parts of the environment that have changed... are not as expected... and make sure that any danger they represent is neutralised, often by running away, sometimes by combat.

Being animals, humans have a similar way of doing things.  We spend a lot of our time constantly checking our surroundings for exceptions to our rules, departures from our internal maps.  While walking the road, we are responsive to anything surprising or unusual, because it may represent a threat.  In our communications, too, we tend to be very attentive to exceptions rather than rules.  For example, we are likely to notice others' rudeness more quickly than we notice their courtesy, because the first alters us to difference and danger, whereas the second is just a confirmation of familiar patterns.

For the above reasons, I would suggest that we should expect other people to be 'picky', to be alert to anything that is different from what they expect.  They are simply doing what their animal nature demands of them - that they operate according to internal rules of what to expect, and become alert and responsive when those rules are broken.   Pickiness is built into us.

Socially, humans seem to have developed the ability to be picky in groups.  In other words, when several people are gathered together in a common culture, they seem to develop, together, a whole raft of common internal rules.  They spend years educating their children into sharing those internal rules; and teaching them how to spot when those internal rules have been broken.  Families develop internal sets of rules, not always immediately apparent to the outside world, that determine what will be picked on and how.  Gangs and clubs are a little more explicit in their enforcement of certain rules, and also more explicit in their reaction to, and punishment of, infringements.  There are all social uses of our internal ability to (a) make an internal map of expectations regarding our environment, and (b) to become alert and responsive when those expectations are not met.

However, different people respond differently when faced with exceptions to their rules.  Young babies have a vested interest in seeking out exceptions to rules for learning purposes.  You will notice that a baby often takes great delight in surprises, and turns the head towards interesting exceptions to what they know so far.  In contrast, old people may often have a rather grumpy response to difference - they perhaps have a vested interest in keeping things as they expect: comfort takes precedence over the need to learn more and more variety.  A general rule might be that we begin our lives with a preference for learning from greater variety (though even babies get scared and like their security!), and end our lives with a preference for being more critical of the new, and more welcoming of stability, expected-ness and comfort.

During their lives, you will also notice that individuals have markedly different responses to surprises and differences.  Some are openly picky with those that break their rules, until the other falls into line, or drifts away.

Others, however, have learned to disguise their pickiness behind a veil of sociability.  Thus, you will find people who initially seem friendly and welcoming of difference and surprise; but, later, they drift away from it.  They don't openly pick fights or criticise - but behind the scenes they take action to retreat into commonality, and protect themselves from it.  An example might be a group of rich people who are very polite in immedite society, but in the medium term build gated estates in which to live together to defend themselves from unfamiliar intrusion.

So, we have a tendency, increasing as we age, to become alert in the presence of the unexpected, and take action to remove surprises from our experience.  We are, naturally, 'picky'!

But what if we want to overcome this tendency?  What if we find that, in a relatively safe society, our animalistic 'pickiness' is making us hypervigilant, over-anxious, almost allergic to change and difference?

We could take a developmental approach.  We could notice our own pickiness, and then try to seek some kind of mastery over it, so that our animal nature governs us less, and we become more masters of our own minds.

The next time you find yourself being 'picky', take time to notice it.  What, in your environment, have you decided is scary, or to be avoided?  Is it a person, whom you and your friends have decided is 'persona non grata', too different to be welcomed?  Is it a colour, or a noise, or a design, or a piece of technology, or an item of clothing, or a sexual preference, or a political view, or a way of behaving?  What have you decided, in your animal being, is some kind of threat to you and your friends?

These 'pickinesses' are very hard to notice in ourselves.  (Though we are great at noticing other people's 'pickinesses'.  In other people, we call them 'prejudices'.  In ourselves, we call them 'standards', or 'tastes'!)  But try.  Then, when you feel you have identified a 'pickiness' that you are inflicting on the world, ask yourself:

(a) Does the object of your pickiness really represent a threat to your survival?
(b) Are you distancing another person from you to try to make yourself safer?
(c) How might you become less of a slave to your own pickiness, and become more tolerant?

I have illustrated how pickiness might be ingrained in us because of our evolutionary past.  But our past was one in which we faced daily threats to our survival.  Constant attentiveness was perhaps more understandable.  These days, many of us do not have such daily personal threats.  Yet we are left, as individuals and groups, with the residue of this defensiveness... we jump at exceptions to our rules; we hide, in our groups, behind group rules, defending ourselves against perceived violations and differences from the norm.  In mental health arenas, terms such as 'disorder' are used to isolate the different.

A more masterful way of conducting ourselves might be to attend to our own tendency to be picky, both as individuals, and as groups.  If we can notice when we are doing it, and attend to our own responses before reacting, we might learn to 'downsize' our own internal models, and 'upgrade' the interests of others.  This might avoid us all constantly alienating those who are different from ourselves.

A certain amount of watchfulness is understandable.  A bird that did not pay attention would get eaten by a cat.  And a cat that did not pay attention would get attacked by other cats too often for comfort.  But a being that knows its own attentiveness, and has mastery over it, can defend against immediate danger, whilst retaining sufficient detachment from its own biases to stay free.  In other words, the biggest benefit of mastery over one's own pickiness, is that we can switch it off when appropriate.  This opens a way to peace; because if enough people learn to switch off their 'pickiness radars', then tolerance becomes the norm, and defensiveness isn''t needed.

Sunday, August 6, 2017


Despair is something common to most of us humans.  Now and again, we all, or nearly all, get that sinking feeling that something we hoped for is lost.  It can make us irritable; it can make us angry; it can make us depressed; it can even make us anxious... but loss is like that:the human body will often do anything but face loss head on, and just accept it.  We push, we pull, we act out... anything to get away from us, as quickly as possible, the feeling of loss.  We even sometimes create little battles we know we can win, so as to reduce the impact of the battles we have lost.

But despair teaches us a lesson, if we want to hear it.  It teaches us that there is something we have been hanging on to, whether it's an ambition, a relationship, a possession, a state of mind or being even.  The despair would not be there if we had not had a hope in the first place.  Without hope, despair can't happen.

So, logically, it would be true to say that the existence of despair tells us that we have, yet again, been hoping for things, in a world which is almost assured to disappoint.  If we despair when someone dies, then our feeling shows us we have been pretending to ourselves that death doesn't happen, that we are somehow protected from it.  If we despair when we lose money or possessions, then it shows us that we have been pretending that those possessions were part of us, that we needed them to truly be ourselves.  If we despair at the end of a relationship, then it shows us we have been hoping that the relationship would be with us for ever, and would protect us from unhappiness.

It is a certainty that everything we have will be taken away from us: our bodies, our possessions... everything.  Attachment to things, material things,is something bred into us by millions of years of evolution: the ones who were not sufficiently attached to their parents, or food, or their homes, let them go and did not survive.  The ones who fought for their relationships, their food source, their territory, perhaps survived.  But they, too, in the fulness of time, will lose everything, because the end happens eventually.  That's how our bit of the material universe seems to be built.  We are like fireworks: we fly for a while, and then we run out of fuel, and crash to earth.

In meditation, we can contemplate this, and, ironically, gain some happiness from the thought.  If we can face, head-on, the fact that everything we have will be taken away from us, and really accept it with our deepest mind; if we can learn to be calm, in the firm understanding that there is nothing material that lasts; if we can learn to let everything go as easily as it came... then it does bring a particular kind of happiness.  Partly because we understand that to be here, now, seeing what we see, and experiencing what we experience, is a little miracle in its own right.  OK, we die, but while we fly, we are fireworks.

We may feel guilty, that we can feel unchained to loss, and be happy when people die.  But this would be to misunderstand the source of the happiness.  The happiness comes from a deep understanding of the nature of things, and death's place in the nature of things.  We can still aim to remove suffering from people and other beings who are still here, stuck in the world, if we want to.  So there need be no guilt.  To reconcile oneself to death is not the same as wishing death on others.  Accepting loss is not the same as causing loss.  We can still be as helpful as we want, even if we accept losses when they happen.

So listen when you despair.  What you will hear is a part of you that is not yet reconciled to loss.  Be kind to it.  But at the same time, try to allow that part of you to see that loss is everywhere.  Every moment of every day, someone, somewhere, is dying.  Why are you not in constant despair at this?  Because you are not attached to the others, the ones not so close to you.  To have someone dear to you is to expose yourself to loss... unless you can accept that endearment may be lost at a moment's notice.  If you can learn the art of living constantly with the threat of imminent loss, then, ironically, you will get used to it, and it will cease to be a threat.

So, in short, if you find yourself despairing, look for the hope in which the despair originated.  I guarantee there is something you are clinging on to that is causing that despair.  The hope that people live for ever; the hope that we are always protected; the hope of continuity.  When you have found the hope, then you have found an unrealistic thought.  Contemplate its unreality for long enough, and you will find that you were hoping irationally for something that never was.  When you accept the irrationality of hope, then you will accept the irrationality of despair.  When you have rejected both, then you can live in complete acceptance.  It may not guarantee you a longer life, but it could easily alleviate your suffering - because suffering depends on irrational hope, and fades away altogether where there is complete acceptance.

Saturday, July 29, 2017


The current trend in journalism is to talk of countries as though they do things.  So we say: 'Russia interfered in the US elections', or 'the US has imposed sanctions on Russia because it interfered in the US elections'.

But perhaps we could take a moment to think what we are doing when we assent to such language.  What do we mean when we say 'Russia did this', or 'the US is doing that'?  I suppose what I am asking is: can a country do things, and, if so, what do we actually mean when we describe a country as doing things?

Let's first look at the vast amount of the universe we are ignoring when we talk like this.  When we say 'Russia interfered in the US elections', we don't mean that the Altai Mountains and the Ural Mountains forgot their rocky-ness, and started transmitting radio waves into US territory.  Presumably the mountains, the vast mountains, just sat there and did nothing, innocently.  We don't mean that the Baltic and Black Seas, the East Siberian Sea and the White Sea all rose up and conspired to wash the US citizens into voting differently.  Nor do we even mean that the brown bear, the Amur tiger and the grey wolf sneaked over onto US territory and prowled and stalked until the US populace gave in and voted Republican.  No, we mean the humans.

Having excluded the vast majority of material space and animal kind from Russia's apparent actions, we are left with some assumption that Russia is the humans in it. But by Russia, neither do we mean most of the 144 million people who live there.  They have better things to do than to try to influence how US citizens voted.  We mean, I imagine, not the Russian people, but the Russian Government.  Having limited the ambit of the phrase 'Russia' to the few people in charge of the political country, we might go further, and look to the most powerful among them.  Perhaps the most powerful person is the President, Vladimir Putin, supported by his Presidential Administration.

What may be meant by 'Russia' is 'the Russian President'.  After all, if we do not mean this, then we mean 'some people in Russia for whom the Russian government does not speak'; and there are any number of those.

Interestingly, journalists tend not to say 'Vladimir Putin'.  They operate on the assumption that we all know who 'Russia' is.  But the effect of this elision of colloquialism into fact, is that a little part of our brain really thinks that the whole geographical country of Russia interfered in the US elections.  It's irrational, but it's a persistent assumption, albeit unconscious.  It is as ridiculous as saying that a mountain moved and hit someone over the head.

Now, what is the effect of this loose use of language?  I would argue that, by using the name of a whole country to describe the actions of a few, we are indulging in nothing less than casual racism.  The Russians did this.  The Americans did that.  We use a descriptive phrase to encapsulate an entire country, when we mean to point to one or two key agents.  It wraps whole countries into battles that are really not their battles.

Let's assume what we mean is 'Vladimir Putin, or agents on his behalf, found a way to influence the outcome of the US elections'.  Forgive me for saying so, but this is the most unsurprising thing I have ever heard.  For centuries, administrations in the UK, US, Russia - everywhere - have sought to influence political outcomes everywhere else.  I may as well say 'John Smith from down the road sought to influence the outcome of the planning permission for my extension', and then translate it into 'the North Guildfordians' or some such generic description.

Let's be clear: it is standard practice for all governments to seek to influence political decisions which make or break other governments.  The democratic process is not a complete purdah applied to citizens.  We are all deemed to be grown up, able to determine, from the raft of influences we are exposed to, what we are going to do next, and for whom we are going to vote.  That's the assumption that defines the right to vote.

Finally, let's look at what we mean when we suggest that the US president may have 'communicated with Russia' in the run-up to the election.  We mean that a candidate in an election may have been offered help by Vladimir Putin or agents on his behalf.  So what?  I mean, really, so what?  Yes, it is true that the US has laws preventing inappropriate contact with foreign political influences in such situations.  But the problem is this: a law cannot place candidates in purdah, just as it cannot place citizens in purdah.  Elections happen in the open, in a world where people speak to other people, seek to influence other people.  We have yet to distinguish well between accepting help and being influenced.  Arguably, we call it accepting help when the 'goodies' are involved, and 'being influenced' when the 'baddies' are involved.

What I am arguing for, is more subtlety in our understanding of politics.  Instead of vague statements such as 'Russia interfered in the US elections', we might say 'agents working on Vladimir Putin's behalf...' and then describe what they did.  I am arguing that it is not good enough for US authorities to assert the general without explaining in detail the specifics.  If we are talking about influencing social media, then that is propaganda, and it simply means that some successful propaganda happened in the US.  Not a surprising thing.  The US government seeks to influence social media abroad all the time.

So let's not keep talking about how 'Russia did this', or 'North Korea did that'.  Let's refer to the people we mean, and then explain who did what, and how.  Otherwise, we are no better than casual racists who explain life with reference to generic and vague terms of origin.  It is up to journalists to help this change by avoiding such phrases.  We need to stop pretending that countries do things.  People do things.  To report the general is not journalism - it is gossip.  To explain exactly who did what, and how, and whether or not it is unusual... now that is closer to journalism.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


The other week, a colleague asked me for ideas as to what business he might start.  It set me thinking about what types of businesses are most suitable for individuals who want to set something up, at little or no cost, as a scaleable venture (i.e. a venture that can grow in time).

Get a piece of paper, or open a page on your computer, and list out all the things you feel skilled or knowledgeable in.  Perhaps give them a mark out of ten for how skilled you feel.  For instance, you might give yourself an 8 for writing skills, but a 5 for selling skills.  Try to be honest with yourself.  You could even ask friends to contribute to your list, and suggest things they know you are good at.

The idea of this is to encourage realism about what kind of business you could start.  It will be easier to run a business, however small, if it is in an an area where you feel you can add value.

What if you feel you have limited skills?  It's possible that your confidence may be low, or your experience is limited.  If so, you may have to try to predict what activities may suit you the best.  For example, you may like dogs, and feel that dog-walking is something you could learn to do as a business, given the chance.

Be realistic about what resources you have at your disposal.  These could be financial, material or human.  Do you have a network of friends who can help you in a chosen area of business?  Does the government run a support scheme for people starting your kind of business?  Is there a charity that promotes what you aim to do?  Try to think creatively about where you can build contacts, colleagues and resources.  Sometimes public or free resources are available, if you only seek them out and ask.

This is a key step that may really help you to build a realistic idea of what you can expect.  Ask to meet people whom you feel might be your ideal customer base.  Whether businesses or individuals, you can ask for twenty minutes of their time, and you never know, you might get some of your first business leads from those meetings.  Remember, you are only asking for advice and guidance, and many people are happy to give of their time to someone seeking to make an activity work.

Here is a checklist of seven possible ideas, just in case you really have no idea what might be suitable for you.  Perhaps let your intuition guide you as to what may be suitable.  I have put in brackets the key skills/resources you may need.

Proofreading (written language skills)
Cleaning (stamina, thoroughness, willingness to work unsociable hours)
Repair services (experience in repairing computers, furniture, bicycles...)
Pet care/dog walking (love of animals, experience in caring for them)
Buying and selling goods online (willingness to spend time online, some space to store goods)
Craft/jewellery/cooking (some skill or patience in your chosen craft, willingness to market your wares online or via some publicity)
Garden work/fencing (willingness to work in difficult conditions, basic tools, willingness to promote your services or to network)

If you had to categories some of these ideas, I would say they divide into:

1. Buying and selling goods (e.g. mobile phone accessories)
2. Performing a basic service (e.g. basic gardening)
3. Performing a service requiring background experience (e.g. computer repair, garden design and development)

When performing services, you can work up from basic knowledge to more experience, perhaps taking qualifications along the way where appropriate.  Taking the qualifications may help you to build a network of associates who can help you with tips, tricks and customer leads.

There is always something you could be thinking about as a new business idea.  Try to start by auditing yourself and your resources, and then start discussions with potential customers to find out what they might want.  You never know, one of those conversations might start something new for you that will take you in a much-loved new direction!

Good luck.

Sunday, June 18, 2017


Today I felt irritable.  Suddenly and unaccountably irritable.  I realised that it's Father's Day.  And I lost my father eight months ago.

The funny thing is, consciously I am not recognising that the loss of my father, and the nature of the day, are influencing me to feel irritable.  As far as my conscious mind is concerned, I am just irritable, and that is that.

In evolutionary terms, I can understand this.  It would put a pretty heavy load on the conscious mind, if I was required to consciously register every unconscious influence on my system.  It makes better sense for my body to deal with the distress by finding a channel for aggression, than it does for me to build a perfect conscious model for all of my circumstances.  Put in straight English, unconscious reaction requires less intelligence than conscious appreciation.

Unfortunately, the consequences of this evolutionary economy can be considerable.  If I take my inner conflict out on the world, a consequence is that the world feels distressed, and then decides to fight back.  There begins a loop which can only end in an escalating battle with the world until one of us loses.  And, the world being bigger than me, it's going to be me who is the loser.  Hence, we have a systematic explanation for how many people deal with distress:

1. An inner conflict arises, a bit like the 'inner mess' of a well-used house if it is not cleaned.  It arises because I haven't got the intelligence to keep tidying up after life, and making sure my brain is clear and clean.
2. This creates tension, which has two possible directions, inward or outward.
3. If I take it inwardly (for instance by being hard on myself), then I can cause myself to be totally 'messed up', or depressed.  It is a bit like throwing the mess around in an already messy house - it's not going to help.
4. If I push it outwards (for instance by being hard on others), then I cause conflict with the world.  I will find myself in arguments which just add to the burden of living.
5. Under both scenarios, I lose, and end up overwhelmed.

OK, so how to avoid the overwhelm?

Well, our bodies and minds do have a couple of tools up their sleeves.  One is natural, and the other is less natural.

The natural tool is play.  Play rebalances us in much the same way as food cravings rebalance us nutritionally.  Play is letting your system demand what comes next - giving free rein to your inner urges, but harmlessly.  It can be play-fighting or play-talking, but the understanding is that no one takes it personally.  It's only play.

The less natural tool is meditation.  Meditation is a more disciplined approach to internal hygiene.  You sit with your self, and you watch what comes.  You retain your focus, allowing what comes to fall away and retreat.  You keep your focus on an object, or on your breath, and repeatedly let the distractions come, and then fall away.  It is similar to play, in that you let things arise.  The difference is that you do not act externally.  The other difference is that, instead of staying engaged with what arises, as in play, you dis-engage, or detach, from all the things that your mind wants to attach to, or engage with.  It is as if you have grown a layer of grease on you, and nothing sticks.  You are left with just your self and your awareness.

So next time you find yourself irritable, try one of two tactics.

1. Play - listen to your inner workings, see what they have an appetite for, and find a harmless outlet for that appetite.  Play a ball game, play-fight, joke around, seek some adventure, go for a swim... whatever, for you, seems to be the play that your body wants in order to unwind.  You will know if it works, because you will feel rested and relieved.  It may even be that you need to cry, which is a form of play, viewed this way.

2. Meditate - listen to your inner workings, but stay focused and aware, and let them play themselves out until they calm down of their own accord, and trouble you no longer.  Again, you will know if it works, because you will feel rested and relieved, and extremely calm.

Whatever you choose, do take some time to take care of yourself.  Viewed this way, both play and meditation are important tools of self-care.  It also helps you to take care of others, because how can you help others if you lack the calmness to make good decisions in their interests?

Today, I cleared myself some time for this.  I took my irritability as a sign that I needed to tend to my own inner workings.  That way, nobody gets hurt, and everybody, in the long run, gets helped.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017


A commonly-stated accusation is that psychology is not a 'real science'.  Is there any truth to this?

Well, it depends what you mean by science.

University degrees in the UK can be called BSc or BA, depending on whether they are classified as a science or an art.  For instance, my degree in English was classified as a BA, because it is considered an art.  My degree in psychology was classified as a BSc, because the makers of that course considered it a scientific course.

However, psychology is a bit of a hybrid subject.  It is possible to find BAs in psychology in the UK, and even courses which give you the choice to graduate with a BA or a BSc.  This betrays an unsureness in the field as to how psychology classifies itself.

Roughly speaking, you might consider psychology an art if you consider that it relies so much on philosophically-derived definitions, that it cannot be said to be a science.  For example, if you are a Freudian psychologist, you may not be too concerned as to whether or not you can find objective proof of a concept - it is enough that it seems, to you, to speak truth.  In this sense, you are treating truth in a similar fashion to a student of literature, sharing ideas rather subjectively, and taking points of view without resorting to detailed testing.

If, however, you are a psychologist interested in neuroscience, you may be less interested in philosophical nuance, and more interested in using a series of experiments and machines to establish a clear picture of what is going on in a physical thing you call the brain.  This is plainly not an art, in the sense that it is not really subjective, but depends on finding objective proof.  You don't select a brain scanner because you like its colour, or the humming noise it makes - you select it because it helps you to find an objective truth you think is there in the data.

So there you are - two views of psychology, of the study of the mind.  One which sees it as an inevitably subjective interplay and history of ideas (an art); and one which sees it as a quest to map and explain the objective truth of the brain and behaviour (a science).

In a way, the history of psychology is the history of a group of people who desperately want to be taken seriously in the scientific world.  Now, if you are equipped with a brain scanner, and are in the business of proving which neurons fire when we perform certain tasks... that has a good chance of being amenable to the 'scientific method' (i.e. proving by testing).  But if you are equipped with some pieces of fine literature and a nuanced, philosophical mind... well, you will find it hard to argue your way into being considered scientific, because you are not using official scientific methods.

If you are a psychologist who does not like the idea of using machines, but wants nevertheless to be considered scientific, then you are in luck.  Two forms of quasi-scientific pursuit have helped boost the 'philosophicals' into the community of 'scientific method'.

Firstly, what might be called 'subjective experimentation'.  For example, you can ask 100 people what they think of something.  You then have data about what people think, and can manipulate it much like other test data.  A problem with this is that you are assuming that ideas behave in the same way as processes, that concepts can be measured using the same techniques as blood flow.

Secondly, what might be called 'linguistic psychometrics'.  You can invent a concept, and then develop a questionnaire which enables you to score people in relation to that concept.  For example, you might give new employees a verbal questionnaire designed to categorise them into types of person.  You can then score them as high or low in particular attributes, and make judgements about what you are going to do with them.  Again, a problem with this is that you are assuming that concepts can be measured in this way; moreover, you are assuming that these types of person exist, and have not been made up by psychologists just to have something to talk about.

All this is good news to the psychologists who do not scan brains.  By collecting opinions and ways of thinking, and treating the data as one would a scientific dataset, they can make announcements about what people think, and what they are like, and be believed as though they were scientists.

A huge problem with such methods is that they treat the conceptual mind as though it were a 'thing for ever', something unchanging.  But the fact is, our concepts drift on the waters of culture.  Arguably, proving concepts in humans is much like trying to build houses on moving sands.  You can only test a person, in context, at a point in time.  Contexts change, times change, concepts even change, and so we can be healthily sceptical of anyone who claims to have categorised humans into types using verbal questionnaires, or claims to have worked out what people think by interviewing them.
I guess one could say that there are certain psychological disciplines, such as neuroscience, whose methods are akin to the 'scientific method'. 
But there are other psychological perspectives, involving surveying, gathering or assessing attitudes, which inhabit a less clear region.  These areas of psychology are perhaps a science if you consider the ethnographer (the describer of cultural difference) a scientist.

But, according to some, the surveying, gathering, or assessment of atttitude is as much an art as a science.  For instance, companies employed to conduct opinion polls will know how much the wording of their questions will influence the results of their research.  Politics gets involved, and it can often seem that researchers work hard to get answers they want about concepts they invent.  This is science if you allow science to be political.  But otherwise, it is perhaps art, a battle of philosophies, an attempt to build houses on sand.

In summary, perhaps psychology, more than any other discipline, finds itself embattled as to what it is, and what its methods are.  It often tries to use the methods of science (prolific referencing, statistical technique) to bolster the appearance of science.  But it is perhaps over-prone to use such methods where they may not fit: in the territory of ideology and deep concept, where its management and manipulation can start to look much more like an art.

The above article uses a somewhat clumsy, but prevalent, definition of a science, as something which follows traditional scientific method.  But one could argue that, culturally, we have created a false duality between sciences and arts, and that what we have is a continuum of understanding ranging from the statistical/informative at one end, to the expressive/conformative at the other.  I've been deliberately lazy about this, in an attempt to make the discussion practical.  Sorry.

Monday, February 8, 2016


Many wonder what the difference is between the word psychodynamic and the word psychoanalytic.  They seem so close to each other, and are sometimes used interchangeably in conversation (though, admittedly, only between people interested in therapy).  This article is an attempt to gather some thoughts on the similarities and differences between the two words, as used by academics and practitioners.

Psychodynamic, in general, refers to mental forces - hence the two parts of the word, psycho and dynamic, mind and forces.  The idea is that human behaviour can, at least in part, be explained in terms of psychological forces, or patterns of energy in the mind.  It is often held by those thinking psychodynamically that these forces have their root in childhood experiences.

In Freud's time, thermodynamics was all the rage in physics.  Freud, used the term psychodynamics partly to parallel this, reflecting the idea that perhaps human behaviour, too, could be explained in terms of energy flow.  Freud's supervisor Brucke applied principles of the conservation of energy to the human mind, an idea which Freud extended.  In simple terms, if energy cannot escape a system, it must transform into something else.  Although these principles are not so strictly applied these days, they have influenced much psychodynamic thinking.  Hence all the terms, such as repression and projection, which suggest physical movement or blockages.

Analysis is the detailed examination of something.  Freud wanted to practice in a way akin to the medical profession, where a doctor examines the patient, and treats accordingly.  Therefore, the term analysis might be best understood as a mirroring of the way a doctor analyses an illness to discover a diagnosis and speculate on treatment.

In order to analyse the patient, Freud and others developed a very intense way of practicing therapy, meeting the patient several times a week.  This method was called psychoanalysis, although it often fed upon the general psychodynamic idea above that behaviour can be explained in terms of energy flows.  So you could say that psychoanalytic therapists often think psychodynamically.

In contrast, a less intense method called psychodynamic therapy involves meeting only once or twice a week, unlike the more frequent psychoanalytic method.

So in terms of ways of thinking, there is a lot in common between forms of psychoanalytic thinking and psychodynamic thinking.  They could almost be used synonymously in many situations.

But in terms of ways of practicing, psychoanalytic therapists generally meet the patient several times a week, whereas a psychodynamic therapist may only meet the client once a week or so.

Since Freud's time, psychodynamic thinking has gone beyond this idea of energy being trapped in a system like thermodynamics.  In particular, partly influenced by computers, we tend to see things very much in terms of information and patterns.  So you will also hear psychodynamic thinkers talk about mental models developed in childhood, not only about mental energy flows.

Typical usages, then, might be:

1. Fred is a psychoanalyst.  He sees his patients several times a week.
2. Jane is a psychodynamic therapist.  She sees her clients once a week.
3. Fred is very influenced by psychodynamic thinking, especially Freud.
4. Jane is not a psychoanalytic practitioner, but in her psychodynamic work she shares many principles used in psychoanalysis.
5. John has gone into psychoanalysis.  He sees his therapist every day.
6. Elaine has opted for psychodynamic therapy.  She sees her therapist once a week.
7. Freda is an integrative therapist who draws on psychodynamic thinking in her work.

I hope this helps to clarify some of the ways in which the two words psychoanalytic and psychodynamic are used.  Every practitioner will be somewhat precious about what THEY mean, but I have tried to give a flavour, rather than cover all avenues.  If I have offended anyone, then it's in the cause of simplifying!