Admont Abbey Library, Austria

It is common for senior undergrads or post-grads in Psychology to lose their interest. They forget why they had decided to enter into Psychology in the first place. Even when (or perhaps especially because) they get involved in a line of research, they might become cynical, practical, confused, mirroring the attitude of many of their professors (who, if their conference-drinking habits are any indication, have become maximally practical, cynical, and nihilistic).

If you have talked with me about this before, you know how I think about this problem. And you know why I am not surprised by it. We don’t need to get into the problem now. Yes, academic Psychology, as it is currently going on in most places, is not about the lives of real people. It is about made-up constructs, pretend-play at “measurement” and “statistically inference”, laboratory artifacts (usually called “effects”), hijacking common-sense concepts and depriving them of all meaning, etc., etc. When I push my colleagues on this issue, their response falls back on “Well, we need to be practical, we need to publish, we need to get that promotion, … Once you get tenured, then,… maybe then…”.

We have heard all of this. It’s not new. And it’s not my central concern at the moment. Let’s move on to a possible solution. A small-scale solution. Something you and I can do with our limited resources and time.

I’d like to propose a method of psychological study. My proposal is for honest students of psychology, possibly including some researchers and teachers, whose soul isn’t yet fully corrupted by the logic of the academic marketplace, who like to find their interest, be driven by genuine interest, to re-discover some sense of a passion in the subject-matter, to rekindle their curiosity. Here is a plan of study for you to experiment with.

Assumptions

First, here are some of my assumptions behind the current proposal:

  • You should have loyalty to your own experience. This loyalty should be stronger than your loyalty to a theory, to a lab, to a supervisor, or to a research team
  • The domain of human experience is richer than any psychological laboratory. What do we do in our labs, anyway? We don’t add anything. We remove. We systematically deprive human experience of its ambiguities and complexities, and we make it simple and manageable. Keep this in mind: Laboratory research in psychology is about removal, simplification, idealization, and artificial construction. The domain of experience–though messy and ambiguous–is accessible to all of us, and it is accessible to each of us in a unique way
  • We tend to under-estimate our own experience as a source of insight. We are trained to under-value our own perspective. We have been trained to trust the authority of teachers, rather than trust our own point of view. This is particularly fatal in psychology. Therefore, we need to de-school ourselves (and each other), to learn to value our experience again
  • Psychology is the study of persons. You are a person, among other people. Therefore, what you experience, and what you have to say, is directly relevant to Psychology. Psychology should be distinguished in this way from chemistry, quantum mechanics, genetics, and other “hard” sciences. In those fields, the objects of study are typically and understandably foreign to us at first. Psychology shouldn’t be completely foreign to you from the beginning. If it is, then it is not psychology

A Method

After laying out my guiding assumption, let’s move on to the proposed method. Here is what I’d like you to try:

Sit and write about 5 significant events in your life. You could pick these 5 from your life events, your “turning points”, significant encounters with people, romantic interests/relationships, places you visited, important works of art, your travels, your jobs, or books that you read. Pick just 5!

If I do this exercise at different times, I might write the list differently, but that’s fine. At this moment, my list might look like this:

  • Meeting my calculus teacher in high-school Mr. Javid
  • Meeting my first guitar teacher, Mr. Zahedi
  • Reading Promise at Dawn (by Romain Gary) at 19 and then finding all of other Gary’s books, as many as I could find
  • Meeting my friends Siavash and Peter in Toronto
  • Meeting my wife and getting married

So, you first make a short list that includes 5 items, like the ones I wrote above. Then write a short paragraph about each item. Elaborate on each event as much as you can. Write about why it is meaningful, why it is still memorable, why it is still on your mind. Write about the reasons behind the selection. If you’re not sure, guess (trying to “read your own mind”).

You can write and leave aside the list for the rest of the day. On the next day, come back and read your paragraphs. See if you can find some themes that run through several of the paragraphs. Do they share something in common? Can you bring all the paragraphs together and give them all a single title? You’re ONE person, and it is likely that there is one or two ideas that goes through the list. Perhaps you can find it. If there are multiple themes, that’s also fine!

Now, and only now, once you are connected with your life history, once you have affirmed your loyalty to your own experience, you can move to “literature review” phase, if you want. I suggest that at this point you seek conversation partners that are a bit wiser, a bit more well-read, who can guide your reflections, talk with you, and suggest reading material. These could be among your professors. You should, however, be careful to avoid careerist professors, which mostly offer traps. If your professor says, “That sounds interesting, BUT… MY research is X,Y,Z,… and you should come and join MY team, and get involved in MY research… blah blah”, then your professor is probably encouraging you to let go of your own questions and serve his/her research instead. Of course, you can do that, but I suggest you don’t do it. Even if you join the careerist professor, do something like this (something like my proposed method) on the side and in your own time.

If you find a true mentor, someone who listens to you and helps you with your reflections, then continue talking with that person. It would be especially good if you get relevant reading recommendation from your mentor and discuss with him/her what you read. If a theme came out of your list of “5 events” (a theme like depression, anxiety, loneliness, etc.), then it would be helpful to read what other, more mature thinkers who have given that topic a lot of thought, have to say about it. Needless to say, you should be respectful and be mindful of the demands you place on your mentor. Generally speaking, I believe a mentor would also find such an interaction intrinsically rewarding.

Yes, you read to understand your own experience better. But it’s not ALL about you. You’re reading and reflecting to understand something about humanity, something about being a person among other people, something that is a possibility for all humans (that is potentially available to everyone).

Summary

Let me summarize the basics of this method of study:

  • You begin by reflecting on your personal history and the events in your life that have been significant (something like the “5 event” writing exercise)
  • Extract psychological themes from your reflections. You will most likely note that these themes can take the form of a question. Don’t stop at saying “Loneliness has been a major theme in my life”. Instead, ask, “What is the meaning of my loneliness?” What are the best ways of thinking about it, and responding to it?
  • Find conversation partners (mentors, professors, books) and search for resources–including books and articles–that help you better understand the themes that you have identified
  • Doing the above will provide a solid ground for your writing in psychology. When you write something, you will remain connected to the truth (of your experience), guided by questions that keep you curious, and guided by the wisdom of others
  • Your inquiry and thinking finds a place in conversations, and in those conversations, you (and your questions) are honored, respected, and are given breathing space

Can you imagine this being a way out of disillusionment? Can you imagine this being a way to reconnect with your passion in psychology? A way of becoming interested again? Curious again?