Turning psychology inside out

To expand on a metaphor I have used previously for rethinking people (2016a): We need to approach psychology like we do the solar system, learn to be able to think about people and their so-called ‘phenomenological’ worlds as we do the solar system.

The sun, moon and planets are way out there in space but they still affect the earth in many ways (orbits, oceans).  We have no urge to put representations of the planets and sun inside the earth in order to make these effects happen.  We do not need an Executive Control Centre inside the earth which is figuring out all the masses, directons and gravitational pulls and pushes and then computing the earth’s orbit moment-by-moment.

Now try to think the same with people. The outcomes of our interactions are out there as we interact with people and the world and those outcomes set us in trajectories, but we do not need to put replicas or Executive Control Centres inside us.  The world we engage in is out there and we do not compute and decide everything inside us, just like the earth being shaped by the solar system. Even our language is out there because language is just something we do when we interact with people and which has outcomes which change our trajectories, so we do not need to put language inside us.

So why do we have this urge to make all the work take place inside of us rather than outside in those interactions and outcomes themselves?

  • Because of our complexity we have more of these interactions (“The organism, of course, seems in everyday life and language to stand out strongly apart from the transactions in which it is engaged. This is a superficial observation. One reason for it is that the organism is engaged in so many transactions.” Dewey & Bentley, 1949, p. 138)
  • Many outcomes are delayed so we think it must all be going on inside us
  • Many interactions and outcomes are hidden from easy observation so we think it is all going on inside us
  • Our bodies and the world are not the same before or after any interactions, and those changes are our new trajectories because of the outcomes, we do not have to later compute them
  • The above effects are exacerbated because we also talk about those interactions and outcomes and doing this makes them seem even more not-outside, hence they must be inside because we cannot imagine where else they might be (like dreams and thoughts)

So now consider what the solar system would be like if we treated it like we treat ourselves:

  • The earth could talk about what was affecting it (“I decided to move my other side towards the sun more starting this month, for about six months I reckon”)
  • Some hidden dark matter was affecting the earth’s orbit (“I think I must like moving my other side away from the sun this time of year.”)

Now for the real test… try and think about your “own” thinking events as planets which are outside you, revolving in your social relationships but you cannot observe that these relationships are affecting you.  Can you even think that?  That your thoughts are happening out there and not inside you?  In your social worlds, their interactions and the outcomes.   All those people in your world are pulling and pushing ‘your’ thoughts over time, as you do theirs.  But this is done by shaping gradually, not by a Vulcan ‘Mind Meld” sort of method.

  • If the earth moves one side slowly away from the sun during our winter that is because the planets and sun are slowly shaping this as a system not because the earth has decided or chosen to move.
  • If a thought ‘pops into your head’, that is because your social and cultural worlds have gradually shaped you to think that thought in that context or even say it out loud, not because you have suddenly decided or chosen to think it

This exercise is only for true Zen Masters… But it is enormously important for rethinking mental health and other topics



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