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City Tech Professor Fredric Nalven Tells Conference of Social Scientists That Psychology May Be Getting Back Something
Important It Lost

Professor Fredric Nalven

“Questions have arisen in all times and places since thinking, language-using humans first walked the Earth,” says New York City College of Technology Professor of Social Science Fredric Nalven, “regarding what makes human beings think, feel and behave as they do.” Over time, attempts to answer such questions gave rise to the field of psychology. But over its history approaches to the study of psychology both evolved and devolved, and during the 20th century, some say, psychology focused on “brain” and lost its “mind.” But could it happen, Professor Nalven wonders, that the field will return to a study of itself that takes “mind as well as “brain” into account?

“In the modern, scientific western sense of the word,” Professor Nalven explains, “psychology is said to have been born in 1879, when German psychologist and philosopher Wilhelm Wundt established the first psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany, after publishing his Principles of Physiological Psychology, a book that helped establish experimental procedures in psychological research. The Leipzig lab is generally thought to be the official beginning of psychology as a field of science separate from philosophy and physiology. The avowed purpose of the new science in the late 19th century, was to study the contents of consciousness by looking into one’s own mind, a process Wundt called ‘introspection.’ From the work of Wundt and others emerged ‘structuralism,’ the first school of thought to describe and explain the human mind and human behavior.

“A contender for the role of first psychologist,” according to Professor Nalven, “was America’s Williams James, who began teaching psychology at Harvard in 1875 and published The Principles of Psychology 15 years later. James, who also founded one of the first experimental psychology laboratories in the United States, proposed that mind studies primarily include introspective techniques as well as the search for behavioral and neural correlates of conscious and subconscious activities. From James’ work and that of English naturalist Charles Darwin and other scientists of the time evolved a different perspective on the workings of the mind known as ‘functionalism.’”

A 1906 article published in Psychological Review called for reconciliation between these two competing schools of thought. Structuralism and functionalism were not so different, the article argued, because both were concerned with the “conscious self.” But a debate continued after James claimed that structuralism had "plenty of school, but no thought" and Wundt dismissed functionalism as "literature." Over the decades that followed, both schools lost ground, giving way to “behaviorism,” “psychoanalysis” and “humanism.”

In a 2004 article entitled “How Psychology Lost Its Mind,” author, composer and speaker Dr. Darryl Pokea writes that while James’ work focused on “the holistic interaction of mind, body and spirit in human experience,” the subsequent work of Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud looked at psychology from a largely “neurological point of view” that discarded the idea of the existence of “higher consciousness” and the “human spirit.” Freud quarreled with one of his students, who went on to become prominent Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, whose approach to psychology again included the idea of the existence of “spirit” in the workings of human consciousness. In the mid-1940s, American behaviorist, author and social philosopher BF Skinner turned everything on end once more by asserting that there was no such thing as “mind,” only behaviors that were the result of “operant conditioning.” Skinner’s theory abolished the “autonomous inner man” and viewed human behavior as controlled by an external environment largely of humankind’s own making. The Pokea article traces how over the decades psychology underwent, “if unconsciously,” an unfortunate “paradigmatic reduction” because it wanted “to exclude areas difficult to investigate that would require innovative methodologies for gathering measurable data.”

But in his article, Pokea says that fields such as psychology, neurology, physiology and others “have tried to come back in their understanding what it means to be human.” He adds that “in this new millennium, we are approaching again the much-needed comprehensive integration of knowledge from all our ‘ologies’ moving us closer towards a more holistic understanding of ourselves.”

In a critique of David H. Lund’s The Conscious Self: The Immaterial Center of Subjective States (Humanity Books, 2005), Keith Harris, PhD, chief of research for the Department of Behavioral Health in San Bernardino County, California, lends support to those who today suggest that there is more to the self than the electrochemical operations of the physical brain and nervous system. Dr. Harris writes that for many lay people, the assertions that consciousness, self and free will exist “will seem self-evident, certainly not assertions that should require a complex argument and over 400 pages to demonstrate. After all, even if we concede that our sense of self arises from neurological processes, it seems obvious to us that we are something much more than the entrained firing of billions of neurons.”

In an April 2012 International Organization of Social Science and Behavioral Research presentation in Atlantic City, NJ, Professor Nalven talked of the paradigmatic reduction in psychology of which Pokea and others have written, telling his audience in the Abstract of the paper he delivered that “Some fifty-five years ago, as a graduate student at Boston University, I attended a guest lecture by Edwin Boring, the distinguished Harvard historian of psychology. It was the time when psychoanalysis and behaviorism were the leading rival paradigms in the field. Professor Boring lamented, ‘First psychology lost its soul, then its mind. I fear that it is about to lose consciousness.’ While sounding like a humorous quip, Boring’s concern was serious then and perhaps more true today than ever. Increasingly, what used to be called plain old ‘psychology’ is now called ‘neuroscience,’ giving it the cloak of ‘hard science.’ Most obvious has been the substitution of the word ‘brain’ for the word ‘mind,’ as though they are equivalent. Is this truly an advance, or is it merely obfuscation? The old mind-body issue is very much still with us and as problematic as it has been throughout history.”

Professor Nalven contends that all too many psychologists now view concepts like “mind” and “consciousness”’ to be “unnecessary fictions beyond the pale of science. The study of consciousness scarcely exists in psychology today.” He considers this a turn of events with problematic educational and larger sociological implications for humankind. 

“Nobody has offered even a vaguely reasonable explanation,” Professor Nalven contends, “of how the electrochemical mixture coursing through my nerve cells gives rise to my awareness that I exist as a knowing, feeling being. This is where brain and mind meet and a transformation must occur. Unless and until we understand this, any suggestions about mind-body relationships must be viewed as speculative. Until then science must continue studying both by the best means available: neuroimaging, neurochemistry, etc. for brain research, while psychology studies our minds through behavioral and subjective, introspective, meditative techniques.”

Professor Nalven seems to agree, however, that some progress toward the reintegration of “mind” and “brain” is taking place today. For more than 35 years a practitioner of “meditation” – an exercise by means of which the mind focuses on itself – he is encouraged by the fact “that many of even the most conservative neuroscientists are beginning to regard meditation as perhaps the best way to study the workings of the human mind.” This suggests to him the reemergence of the notion that there is more to human consciousness than the physiological processes of the brain and the firing of those billions of neurons.

While challenging the widely held view that that the study of the mind need be anything but scientific, he believes that terms like “mystical” and “spiritual,” as valuable as they might be in other contexts, “are inappropriate and unnecessary, as far as my view of a scientific psychology of the mind should proceed. But I do believe that brain science should be viewed as separate from a science of the mind.” Professor Nalven proposes that “a direct experience psychology make use of introspection, psychoanalytic free-association, concentrative meditation and new uses of projective tests such as Rorschach Inkblots to study the mind. The term ‘psychology’ means just that and the discipline has gone far afield from its original meaning, and those neuroscientists who study meditators see their work as brain study.”


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