One of the first things that you learn when you start studying psychology is that we don’t really know anything for sure. There are many big mysteries in psychology, from the nature of consciousness to how precisely the brain is able to do all the amazing things that it can.
In fact, even the smaller and more ‘mundane’ seeming aspects of the brain also have us puzzled. There are very few areas of psychology at all that enjoy the unanimous agreement of everyone involved and this can make it very difficult if you’re looking for ‘answers’ regarding how to be happier or how to be more productive.
Why Psychologists Just Aren’t Sure
At first this might seem somewhat frustrating, or like a limitation of the subject. In fact though, this is the case in many different areas and for many different disciplines.
Take physics for instance. While physics is based on observation and experimental design, there is still a lack of agreement in a huge number of areas. Interpretations of quantum physics for instance are many and varied (including the ‘many worlds’ interpretation), there are those who believe that the universe is actually a ‘hologram’ projected from the far reaches of space and there are many other radical ideas and raging debates besides.
The same can be said for the subject of health generally. Ask an online community whether the best diet is a ‘low carb’ diet or a ‘low fat’ diet and you will be inundated with responses from both sides of the fence – supported no doubt by a flurry of studies and research papers.
The reality with many subjects is that the more you learn, the more you realize there is that we still just don’t know.
And while this might at first seem alarming, it’s actually a good sign in many ways. Science is designed to be objective wherever possible and that is why good experimental design should always aim to disprove the currently accepted theory. No study should ever set out to confirm or prove a hypothesis, you should be seeking to disprove it in order to have a chance of remaining unbiased.
This keeps the results fair and removes any personal politics or feelings from the pursuit of science but unfortunately it also has the knock-on effect of meaning that the accepted paradigm is constantly being disproven, deconstructed and reimagined.
Taking This Into Account
When seeking any psychological advice online, in books or even through professionals then, it is crucial to be critical and to maintain a little cynicism at all times.
How do you know whether or not psychological advice is good advice in any given instance? You simply read as many opinions as you can, you reflect on your own experiences and whether they seem to hold true for you and then you test the different approaches. Eventually you will hopefully find a point of view that matches your own and that seems to yield results.
For the remainder of this article, we will look at some examples in psychology of different schools of thought, different studies and different perspectives and how they all disagree with one another.
The Best Form of Therapy
The biggest and clearest divide in psychology is no doubt the contrasting views held by different ‘schools’ of psychology and the different therapeutic approaches that each of these recommend/practice.
For instance, if you have a phobia that you want to overcome, you will have the option to see a behavioral therapist, a cognitive behavioral therapist, a psychoanalyst, a social psychologist or a range of other specialists.
A psychoanalyst will approach your phobia from the perspective of Freudian psychodynamic thought. This means they will consider the role of your ‘unconscious’ mind and the interplay of your id, ego and superego. Often phobias will be diagnosed as being caused by repressed memories and other unconscious associations, often stemming from childhood.
If you see a cognitive behavioral therapist meanwhile, then they will approach your phobia from the perspective of the underlying thoughts and ruminations that might be making your fear worse. Treatment will involve replacing negative thoughts with positive affirmations and learning to control your physical response.
A behavioral therapist meanwhile will use exposure therapy and reassociation.
In short, each has a different diagnosis and treatment and none of these different approaches is definitively ‘wrong’ or ‘correct’.
Neurotransmitters are understood to be the cause of many of our different brain states by affecting the way we interpret certain stimuli. Oxytocin for instance is the ‘love neurotransmitter’ and causes us to be more highly in tune with the object of our affection and more in-sync with them emotionally. Serotonin likewise is also a ‘social’ neurochemical produced when we enjoy the company of friends. It’s also a feel-good hormone that makes us feel happy. Cortisol corresponds with stress but also makes us awake and alert. Norepinephrine causes the ‘fight or flight’ response. Dopamine enhanced pattern recognition and motivates behavior. Melatonin makes us sleepy. You can go on and on…
This is generally accepted by psychologists at large but the problem is that this creates something of a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario. The question now is, are you producing serotonin because you are happy? Or are you happy because you are producing serotonin?
This goes much further than just semantics. If the former is true, then the best way to treat depression and low serotonin would be to change your thinking, such that you would be able to think more positively and produce more ‘happy’ neurotransmitters. But if you accept the latter hypothesis – that neurotransmitters control our thoughts – then the better approach would be to use medications like antidepressants in order to alter the chemical make-up of the brain. This is a somewhat philosophical quandary with very practical implications.
Productivity and Creativity
In the world of pop psychology and self-development, the concept of the ‘flow state’ is currently very popular. It is generally accepted by the scientific community that such a state does exist and that it is the result of particular neurotransmitters (specifically dopamine, serotonin, anandamide and norepinephrine) and resulting ‘theta’ brainwaves.
But then many self-help gurus have chosen to take this idea and run with it to the point of abusing the definition. Some claim that the ‘helpers high’ (a positive neurochemical release that results from altruistic behavior) is a form of flow state. Or that ‘all great creative works are the result of flow states’ (to paraphrase Steven Kotler).
But to claim there is a single ‘optimum brain state’ for every kind of experience and activity is rather a stretch. The ‘Default Mode Network’ for instance is the area of the brain that lights up when we’re daydreaming, and despite being demonized by ‘flow experts’ as being responsible for our inner critic, this is actually the brain state that sees us at our most relaxed and that is most likely to result in genuine creative breakthroughs. It’s often agreed that Einstein likely came up with his Special Theory of Relativity as a result of Default Mode Network activation.
This is just a very small taster of the myriad arguments and debates running through psychology and a demonstration of how many different perspectives and solutions there are to any given question.
While this might seem a little daunting, it’s important to try not to get overwhelmed. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to find good advice: just as there is no ‘right’ answer, there is also no ‘wrong’ answer. All this means is that you need to remember to be vigilant when reading any advice, you need to take everything with a pinch of salt and you always need to get second opinions. Most importantly, you need to decide what works best for you and you need to keep trying different approaches until you find that.