A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and our language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably. — Ludwig Wittgenstein
A recurring deluge of exasperation happens whenever I hear eyebrow-raising claims made by woo-prone clinicians coupled with the astonishing credulity of uncritical clients. In an earlier post entitled Seductive Obfuscation, I described the misappropriation and misapplication of scientific language to support specious propositions in a therapeutic setting. Unscrupulous offerings of hope are available in surplus for those who solicit therapy for a sense of meaning or purpose. Likewise, the predisposition of some clinicians to lobby for logical fallacies is only outmatched by the client’s subconscious fear of accepting what David Hume referred to as the “is.” Subsequently, the temptation to manufacture meaning out of the meaningless demonstrates the human desire to anthropomorphize life events through a fog-infused lens of promiscuous teleology. As the playwright Arthur Miller pointed out, the tendency to project ourselves onto the universe is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. The curiously human inclination to retrospectively connect the dots—even when the dots are randomly indifferent—is a remnant from the associative learning of our infancy. Pareidolia (an image or sound that is perceived as significant) is the illusory-inundated cousin of apophenia (attributing connections to patterns of meaningless data), and false positives are the ancestral side-effects of hyperactive agency detection (i.e., type 1 errors in cognition).
More troubling is the level of self-deception among therapists who tacitly or openly endorse fictitious cognitive buffers to attenuate existential anxiety. A recent examination of the willingness to apply equal-opportunity meaning to coincidence, objects, patterns, or circumstance is deconstructed in Australian philosopher Tamas Pataki’s Wish-fulfillment in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: The Tyranny of Desire.¹ Pataki (unrelated to George Pataki), refers to the radical extension of human agency as “intentionalism.” In relation to theory of mind in psychology, the intentional idiom provides greater levels of interpersonal awareness. However, intentionality can quickly lead to fantasy and wishful delusions when extended beyond its social value. In other words, assuming the intentions of others does not imply that all things have intention. The result of unbridled intentionalism is a kind of “animism on steroids” that only serves to reassure a gullible and anxious mindset.
Purpose doesn’t have to be etched in the cosmos to give consciousness intrinsic value; the emergence of consciousness is its own reward. As the historian Peter Watson reiterates, it’s essential to recognize and accept the significance of our insignificance. Furthermore, if our insignificance is interpreted as a source of despair (aptly described by Ann Druyan as “Post-Copernicus Stress Syndrome”), perhaps we should reassess the foundational integrity of our reality-based coping mechanisms. Humility is the concession that we are a complex manifestation of the elements rather than being central to the elements. Only then can we know what it means to be “connected” to the world around us.
1. Pataki, Tamas; Wish-fulfillment in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: The Tyranny of Desire. 2014. London: Routledge. 212. ISBN: 978-0-415-82292-3.
Art is creative for the sake of realization, not for amusement … for transfiguration, not for the sake of play. — Max Beckmann
From a psychoanalytic perspective, the therapist’s role is to provide a comfortable, safe, and non-judgmental environment for free association to take place while allowing the client to experience multifarious epiphanies. The assumption is that solutions will follow naturally from any emergent realizations. Another way to conceptualize this process is something I call the expectorant effect (i.e., guaifenesin). Eliciting information via psychoanalysis should “loosen” repressed or suppressed feelings by “thinning the mucus” of resistance. However, once the dislodging of psychological constipation has commenced, psychoanalysis often outsources long-term problem solving by assuming the client has adequate internal resources for eventual self-correction.
With more invasive forms of therapeutic interaction (e.g., Cognitive Behavior Therapy, systematic desensitization), the therapist should act as a strategic interventionist while incorporating salutogenic priming to stimulate, without falsely influencing, cognitive processing. Associative learning implies associative memory; likewise, maladaptive ways of thinking can be unlearned by establishing new associations. As with the sequential domino effect, one conceptual understanding can innervate a chain reaction that results in a surge of awareness on many levels (cascading luminescence). Information and memories that are dysfunctionally internalized may require extensive exposure to critical thinking skills for promoting adaptive reflectiveness, evidence-based confidence, and future resilience. Furthermore, this is why I believe proficient psychotherapists must also be competent philosophers and teachers. It’s not what you think but how you think that matters for the manifestation of operative change to occur. Teaching someone how to reason more clearly is a vital component for preventing maladaptive emotional and behavioral relapse.
I would submit that effective psychotherapy should be imbued with creativity, but not in a namby-pamby, platitudinous, non-empirical, let’s-break-out-the-crayons-and-have-some-wholesome-fun sense. Being inventive requires the therapist to draw from a large reservoir of therapeutic techniques and educational material to supply the client with sufficient “weapons” for encountering future psychosocial skirmishes. The goal of psychotherapy shouldn’t be to simply make the client feel better; rather, it should provide a user-friendly methodology that allows the client to become their own adjudicator when navigating the perils of circumstance via self-regulation. How this is achieved is less significant than how it is assimilated and actively reproduced. The mechanisms of therapy matter, but effective mechanisms can become ephemeral pacifiers if a platform of persisting continuity cannot be established. What makes sense during a clinical session should also work well in other contexts without the oversight of a clinician. Any epistemic proposition or treatment intervention should be robust enough to withstand peer-reviewed field testing and reliable results over extended periods of time. Subsequently, the creativity of the client is personified as they eventually customize therapeutic information for optimum utilization and self-assured independence. Nevertheless, the internal spectrum of ingenuity sometimes requires a supportive source of inspiration.