Don’t panic but psychology isn’t always a science

Every so often, the ‘is psychology a science?’ debate sparks up again, at which point, I start to weep. It’s one of the most misplaced, misfiring scientific discussions you can have and probably not for the reasons you think.

To understand why it keeps coming around you need to understand something about the politics of studying things.

Science has higher status in academia and industry than the humanities so suggesting to a practitioner that “they’re not a scientist” can be the equivalent of suggesting “you’re not as valuable as you make out”.

This plays in out in two ways: less scientific disciplines get less funding and people start being knobs at parties. The second is clearly more serious.

Probably every psychologist has had the experience of someone coming up to them and drunkenly suggesting that psychology is ‘all made up’. Psychiatrists get the same sort of crap but in the ‘you’re not a real doctor’ vein from other medics.

This makes people who work in psychological disciplines a bit insecure, so they’ll swear blind that ‘psychology is a science’.

Psychology, however, is not a science. It’s a subject area. And you can either study it scientifically or non-scientifically.

I’m going to leave aside the debate of what defines science, which has been better covered elsewhere. No, there isn’t a strict definition of science, but the “you know it when you see it” approach is sufficient if we want to see if something can be widely considered scientific.

I’m also going to leave aside the debate about whether you can study mind and behaviour scientifically. It’s clear that you can, even if some areas are harder to measure than others. This is what is usually meant by the “is psychology a science?” debate. I consider this to be a settled issue but it is also where the debate usually misfires.

In other words, psychology can be a science, but it isn’t only a science.

There are many folks who do legitimate psychology research who are not doing science. It’s not that they think they are but really aren’t (pseudoscience) or that they’re doing it so poorly it barely merits the name (bad science). It’s that they don’t want to do science in the first place.

Instead, they are doing qualitative research, where they intend to uncover patterns in people’s subjective impressions without imposing their own structure onto it.

Let me give you an example.

Perhaps I want to find out what leads victims of serious domestic violence to drop a prosecution despite the abuser already being safely in jail, pending trial.

I could come up with a list of motivations I think might be plausible and then find a way of testing whether they are present, but essentially, no matter how rigorous my methods, the study still depends on what I think is plausible to begin with.

This could be a problem because I may not know a whole lot about the area. Or worse, I may think I do, but might largely be basing my assumptions on prejudice and what passes for ‘common sense’.

Qualitative methods get at how people understand the situation from their own perspective and it looks at common themes across what they say.

In this case, the study by Amy Bonomi and colleagues applied a kind of qualitative analysis called grounded theory to transcripts of jailhouse phone calls between victims of domestic violence and the abusers.

Here’s what they found:

…a victim’s recantation intention was foremost influenced by the perpetrator’s appeals to the victim’s sympathy through descriptions of his suffering from mental and physical problems, intolerable jail conditions, and life without her. The intention was solidified by the perpetrator’s minimization of the abuse, and the couple invoking images of life without each other.

Once the victim arrived at her decision to recant, the couple constructed the recantation plan by redefining the abuse event to protect the perpetrator, blaming the State for the couple’s separation, and exchanging specific instructions on what should be said or done.

There is no pretence that this study has discovered what happens in all cases, or even if these are common factors, but what it has done is shown how this works for the people being studied.

This is massively useful information. If you’re a scientist, suddenly you have a whole bunch of hypotheses to test that are drawn from real-life situations. If you’re not, you understand one instance of this situation in a lot more detail.

The reason that human psychology can be studied both scientifically and non-scientifically is that the object of study can be objectively observed and can describe their own subjective experience.

This doesn’t happen with electrical impulses, enzymes or subatomic particles.

I’m a neuropsychologist by trade, perhaps the most clearly scientific of the psychological disciplines, but I’m not going to pretend that qualitative research psychologists aren’t doing important work that makes psychology more valuable, not less.

So psychology is not just a science, and is better off for it.

Oh yeah, and the drunk guy at the party? He’s like someone who thinks a screaming orgasm is only a drink. I’m laughing at you chump, not with you.

Car crash attraction

A curious case report from a 1960 edition of American Journal of Psychiatry describing a man who gets turned on by being injured by ‘an automobile operated by a woman’.

The patient, a man in his late twenties, reported a periodic desire to be injured by a woman operating an automobile. This wish, present since adolescence, he had by dint of great ingenuity and effort, gratified hundreds and times without serious injury or detection. Satisfaction could be obtained by inhaling exhaust fumes, having a limb run over on a yielding surface to avoid appreciable damage or by being pressed against a wall by the vehicle. Gratification was enhanced if the woman were attractive by conventional standards. Injuries afflicted by men operating autombiles or other types of injury inflicted by woman had no meaning. He experienced pleasure from the experience, thus establishing the symptom as a perversion rather than a compulsion.

The patient’s sexual, social, and occupational adjustment was good and his intelligence superior. He intellectualized to a considerable extent but could experience and manage strong positive and negative feelings. He was ashamed of his symptom but somewhat proud of its unusual nature. A Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index did not demonstrate significant psychopathology and did not indicate the probable presence of perversion or impulse neurosis.

The case could be classified as a type of symphorophilia – sexual arousal associated with disasters or accidents.

Link to locked AJP case study.

What makes the ouija board move

The mystery isn’t a connection to the spirit world, but why we can make movements and yet not realise that we’re making them.

Ouija board cups and dowsing wands – just two examples of mystical items that seem to move of their own accord, when they are really being moved by the people holding them. The only mystery is not one of a connection to the spirit world, but of why we can make movements and yet not realise that we’re making them.

The phenomenon is called the ideomotor effect and you can witness it yourself if you hang a small weight like a button or a ring from a string (ideally more than a foot long). Hold the end of the string with your arm out in front of you, so the weight hangs down freely. Try to hold your arm completely still. The weight will start to swing clockwise or anticlockwise in small circles. Do not start this motion yourself. Instead, just ask yourself a question – any question – and say that the weight will swing clockwise to answer “Yes” and anticlockwise for “No”. Hold this thought in mind, and soon, even though you are trying not to make any motion, the weight will start to swing in answer to your question.

Magic? Only the ordinary everyday magic of consciousness. There’s no supernatural force at work, just tiny movements you are making without realising. The string allows these movements to be exaggerated, the inertia of the weight allows them to be conserved and built on until they form a regular swinging motion. The effect is known as Chevreul’s Pendulum, after the 19th Century French scientist who investigated it.

What is happening with Chevreul’s Pendulum is that you are witnessing a movement (of the weight) without “owning” that movement as being caused by you. The same basic phenomenon underlies dowsing – where small movements of the hands cause the dowsing wand to swing wildly – or the Ouija board, where multiple people hold a cup and it seems to move of its own accord to answer questions by spelling out letters. The effect also underlies the sad case of “facilitated communication“, a fad whereby carers believed they could help severely disabled children communicate by guiding their fingers around a keyboard. Research showed that the carers – completely innocently – were typing the messages themselves, rather than interpreting movements from their charges.

The interesting thing about the phenomenon is what it says about the mind. That we can make movements that we don’t realise we’re making suggests that we shouldn’t be so confident in our other judgements about what movements we think are ours. Sure enough, in the right circumstances, you can get people to believe they have caused things that actually come from a completely independent source (something which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has reflected on the madness of people who claim that it only started raining because they forget an umbrella).

You can read what this means for the nature of our minds in The Illusion of Conscious Will by psychologist Daniel Wegner, who sadly died last month. Wegner argued that our normal sense of owning an action is an illusion, or – if you will – a construction. The mental processes which directly control our movements are not connected to the same processes which figure out what caused what, he claimed. The situation is not that of a mental command-and-control structure like a disciplined army; whereby a general issues orders to the troops, they carry out the order and the general gets back a report saying “Sir! We did it. The right hand is moving into action!”. The situation is more akin to an organised collective, claims Wegner: the general can issue orders, and watch what happens, but he’s never sure exactly what caused what. Instead, just like with other people, our consciousness (the general in this metaphor) has to apply some principles to figure out when a movement is one we’ve made.

One of these principles is that cause has to be consistent with effect. If you think “I’ll move my hand” and your hand moves, you’re likely to automatically get the feeling that the movement was one you made. The principle is broken when the thought is different from the effect, such as with Chevreul’s Pendulum. If you think “I’m not moving my hand”, you are less inclined to connect any small movements you make with such large visual effects. This maybe explains why kids can shout “It wasn’t me!” after breaking something in plain sight. They thought to themselves “I’ll just give this a little push”, and when it falls off the table and breaks it doesn’t feel like something they did.

This is my column for BBC Future from a few weeks back. The original is here. It’s a Dan Wegner tribute column really – Rest in Peace, Dan


Photo by Flickr user William Arthur Fine Stationery's. Click for source.Just a quick post to say that the #DearMentalHealthProfessionals hashtag on Twitter is one of the most interesting and helpful things I’ve read online in a long time.

It contains heartfelt feedback, gratitude, anger, and useful insights and makes for essential reading.

If you don’t use Twitter you can read it live here and some of the responses have been archived here.

How Lariam can trigger psychosis

The New York Times has an article on how the anti-malaria drug mefloquine, better known as Lariam, can send you spiralling into madness.

Coincidentally, the link between mefloquine and madness was the subject of a recent review article in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law which reads like a cross between an H.P Lovecraft short story and a neuroscience paper.

Case reports suggest that mefloquine intoxication may begin with a variable prodrome which may present with personality change, unease, anxiety, phobias, and a sense of impending doom and restlessness. These prodromal symptoms may progress to outright paranoia, delusions, magical thinking, persecutory mania, restlessness, aggression, and panic attacks…

Mefloquine psychosis frequently includes auditory or true visual hallucinations, frequently involving religious or morbid themes. Auditory hallucinations typically feature voices that may be incoherent or mumbling. Some individuals report a sense of the presence of a nearby nondescript figure. Olfactory hallucinations have also been reported. The often vivid and terrifying nature of the hallucinations produced by mefloquine are illustrated by an early unindexed case report, similar to at least one other published report, describing a man who jumped from his hotel room in the false belief that his room was on fire.

Of note, vivid dreams or horrific, terrifying nightmares, also frequently reported by users of mefloquine, are characterized as having “Technicolor clarity” and being “vividly remembered days later,” suggesting that these may also be prodromal to or inform later symptoms of psychosis.

The most likely explanation for why this happens is that mefloquine can trigger an encephalitis or inflammation of the limbic system – a deep brain area heavily involved in both memory and emotion.

Disturbance in this region is known to greatly raise the risk of psychosis. For example, people with temporal lobe epilepsy (which some of the limbic system is part of) have a greatly raised risk of psychosis.

Link to New York Times article Crazy Pills.
Link to open-access scientific article on mefloquine side-effects.

A half hour of hallucinations

I’m on the latest PLOS Mind the Brain podcast discussing the science of hallucinations with the inimitable Ruchir Shah.

We cover everything from the experience of ‘hearing voices’ and its relation to mental illness to how chemists are pioneering new variations of psychoactive substances to get around drugs laws.

In this podcast, we discuss one of Vaughan’s clinical research interests, which is hallucinations. What are they, and how are they diagnosed? We start by discussing some examples of hallucinations, and why auditory and visual hallucinations might be more common than other types, like taste or smell hallucinations. We then discuss the role that culture might play, and the interesting phenomenon that certain types of hallucinations are actually more common in specific countries.

When then move on to another of Vaughan’s academic interests, that of psychoactive drugs, and their potential relationship to hallucinations and psychosis. Finally, we end with a discussion about designer drugs, and how labs all over the world are synthesizing new psychoactive compounds much faster than governments could possibly ban then, effectively making the “war on drugs” irrelevant.

A thoroughly enjoyable discussion which you can download from the link below.

Link to hallucinations in Mind the Brain podcast Episode 3.

A concise, solid grounding in neuroscience

50IdeasHumanBrainI often get asked ‘how can I avoid common misunderstandings in neuroscience’ which I always think is a bit of an odd question because the answer is ‘learn a lot about neuroscience’.

This is easier than it sounds, of course, but if you want a solid introduction, a book by Mo Costandi called 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know is an excellent starting point.

If you recognise the name Mo Costandi its because he has been writing the brilliant Neurophilosophy blog for the best part of the last decade as he’s moved from being a neurobiologist to a science journalist.

The book consists of 50 four page chapters each of which condenses a key area of neuroscience in a remarkably lucid way.

There is no pandering to the feint of heart in the selected topics (from free will to neural stem cells) but neither is there a glossing over of conflicting evidence or controversy.

You won’t get poorly researched hype here about ‘mirror neurons’ being ‘responsible for empathy’ or brain scans showing how the brain ‘lights up’ but you will get a concise, balanced and entertaining introduction to key concepts in neuroscience.

It’s worth noting that the book does not hand-hold you. It’s not a complete beginners guide. It’s aimed at a ‘smart high-school kid and up’ level but if that’s you, and you want to get to grips with the brain, this book is ideal.

Link to more details on 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know.