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  Home  > Helping Professionals  > III. Psychology Comes Around

III. Psychology Comes Around

Psychology is one of the youngest of the life sciences. It has infiltrated what once was the domain of philosophers, clergymen, and lay healers (the earlier shamans, witches, and medicine men). Partially rooted in the medically-based psychotherapies developed by Freud, Adler, and Jung it was also built on the ideas of non-medically oriented thinkers like William James.

While medically-trained psychiatrists focus on the treatment of human ailments, the field of psychology addresses the larger perspective of all human behavior, pathological or not. With it, scientists and non-scientists alike attempt to make sense of that walking bundle of paradoxes labeled Homo Sapiens.

For the better part of the last century, psychology struggled with its sister sciences to gain credibility as another rigorous discipline (i.e., to fit into the authoritarian model). Millions of white rats were run ragged in the name of assigning numbers (and hence predictability) to behavior. This reductionist approach is based on the mistaken notion that "If you can't describe it in numbers, it's not real."

An elite cadre of experts has grown up around this science, believing that human behavior is measurable and predictable. Their limited successes in such areas as subliminal messages in advertising, profiling a high security risk person in the armed forces, and other means of controlling or predicting people's behavior has given them great power in the minds of many people. But, just as antibiotics appeared to make physicians more powerful than they actually were (until resistant strains of bacteria became common), this apparency of psychologists wielding great power is questionable.

The advances in physics, which we reviewed earlier in this module, are bringing an end to the fallacious mechanical assumption about how the world works, blindly imitated by many schools of psychology. It is important that the basic tenets of the discipline be brought up to date with current knowledge.

In addition to the psychiatrists mentioned in the earlier section (Jung, Lowen, Berne, Perls, etc), psychologists have been active in developing the concept of human potential and personal responsibility.

In the fifties, Abraham Maslow, PhD (Religions: Values and Peak Experiences), described a human hierarchy of needs (Figure 1), which posits that after the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter are met people's interests turn to the more abstract and spiritual.

Maslow was one of the first to study high-level wellness by defining and studying people he believed to be self-actualized. He concluded that self-actualized people were rather rare, after identifying only a few hundred--most of whom had been dead for a long time.

Gregory Bateson, PhD (Steps to an Ecology of Mind), developed the double-bind theory of schizophrenia and influenced an entire generation of social scientists with his broader view of human behavior.

Virginia Satir, PhD(PeopleMaking), developed the field of family therapy, bringing a warmth and humanistic orientation to psychology never before seen.

In the eighties, people like John Bradshaw (Healing the Shame that Binds You), Anne Wilson-Schaeff (When Society Becomes an Addict), Pia Melody, Melody Beatty, and Charles Whitfield, MD (Healing the Child Within) brought to the public's awareness the endemic nature of co-dependence and dysfunctional family systems--dis-eases afflicting nearly everyone.


Based in San Francisco, the Association of Humanistic Psychology arose out of the work of Maslow and others following a similar line. Through its journal, newsletter, and meetings it brings professionals and laypersons together.

Another organization instrumental in bringing together many humanistic thinkers in the sixties was Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Co-founded by Michael Murphy (Golf in the Kingdom) and Richard Price, it continues to be a forerunner in the human potential movement.

Partly due to Esalen, a still deeper approach emerged. Transpersonal Psychology looks at phenomena that seem to exist outside and between the physical bodies of individuals. It addresses the area where psychology and spirituality interact. It attracts people who are interested in phenomena that include but also transcend the limitations of the individual personality. The Association of Transpersonal Psychology (ATP) was founded in Menlo Park, California, by a number of people who felt a need to go even further than the above organizations went.

Now connected with ATP, an organization called the Spiritual Emergence Network (SEN--originally called the Spiritual Emergency Network) was founded in 1980 by Christina and Stanisloff Groff, MD (Beyond Death, The Gates of Consciousness). SEN is an international information and referral network that links persons undergoing non-ordinary and often frightening states of consciousness (often called nervous/psychotic breakdowns) with professionals and trained listeners. SEN can assist them in manifesting the potential inherent in these "crises" for developing a more integrated state of being. Building on work done earlier by Lee Sannella, MD(The Kundalini Experience--Psychosis or Transcendence), SEN recognizes that some forms of apparent psychosis are the result of people experiencing a sudden spiritual awakening. In earlier times and in other cultures, these energies would have been channeled toward healing and spiritual growth through the guidance of tribal healers or shamans. Our culture, having no model of understanding for these relatively rare but apparently naturally occurring phenomena, prescribes heavy drug treatment or shunts people into institutions.

Radical Constructivism

One of the most profound explorations into the nature of reality, especially from a psychological viewpoint, is a school of thought called Radical Constructivism. Paul Waczlawick, in The Invented Reality, brings together from biology, physics, psychology, mathematics, literature, art, etc., a number of thinkers who have helped create this emerging multidisciplinary field.

Almost every philosophy or world-view holds that there is a single reality out there whose nature can be discovered. In contrast, Radical Constructivism purports that there are many realities, not out there, but within the minds of those "perceiving" them. Each person's reality fits with the realities of some other people who "believe" the same way. Their shared reality may be in direct conflict with the reality of other groups. Rather than the illusion of a "reality" out there, "reality" is a co-creation of the minds of the group agreeing that it exists.

While this may seem at first to be an outrageous assertion, there are examples to illustrate it. Waczlawick cites a study in which teachers were told that certain pupils were of exceptional IQ (but they were actually no different than others in the same classroom). After a year, this group of students showed an increase in IQ, while their classmates did not. The teachers treated the former group in a way (a reality was created) that led to their IQs increasing.

Another study cited in Waczlawick's book describes eight pseudo-patients who voluntarily had themselves admitted to locked mental wards in major institutions around the US. Each person presented with only the complaint of hearing voices that were "...unclear, but as far as he could tell, they said things like 'empty... hollow... and thud'." The "patients" then had to get out of the institution on their own. Several took many months and found it difficult not to feel like they were going crazy--because the psychiatric staff created a reality that strongly excluded the possibility of sane people being among the patients. (While the staff could not differentiate the sane patients from insane ones, most of the other patients could easily spot them and assumed them to be journalists!)

Still another example of inventing realities is the well-known placebo effect that shows up in every drug study (for many people the placeboes work as well as the drugs being tested).


On a more down-to-earth level, biofeedback, developed in the 70s, has made a valuable connection between activities in the brain and the voluntary control and experience of altered states of consciousness. A biofeedback device converts normally unconscious bodily functions, like brainwaves, hand temperature, skin conductance, or muscle tension--many of which have been used for years in neurology labs as the basis for lie detectors--into audible tones or colored lights. With audible or visual feedback making these functions readily accessible, people can quickly learn to manage stress by altering their physiologic processes. This ability empowers them to take charge of other areas of their lives as well--to invent different "realities."

Those instrumental in developing biofeedback include Joe Kamiya, PhD, Barbara Brown, PhD (New Mind, New Body), and Alyce Green and Elmer Green, PhD (Beyond Biofeedback), at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka. The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, (formerly the Biofeedback Society of America, near Denver trains and certifies practitioners. Some medical insurance plans now reimburse for biofeedback.

Another approach to integrating mind and body was developed by Ida Rolf, PhD (Rolfing--The Integrations of Human Structure), a biochemist who, in her later years after developing arthritis took an interest in the rigidity and postural imbalances resulting from chronic body holding patterns. The large number of practitioners of her system of Structural Integration (Rolfing) attests to the value of her work.

A similar contribution was made by Moshe Feldenkrais. His book Awareness Through Movement describes his unique approach to communicating messages of aliveness and free movement to and through the body from the mind. Countless variations on the work of Rolf and Feldenkrais have created a whole field loosely termed "bodywork."

Lawrence LeShan, PhD (The Medium, the Mystic and the Physicist: Toward a General Theory of the Paranormal), is another pioneer in exploring empowerment on the individual level. One of his interests is the therapeutic use of meditation. He also has researched the connection between cancer and personality types and has contributed substantially to the prevention of cancer by making people aware of psychological early warning signs.

Edward DeBono, PhD (Lateral Thinking), showed that new discoveries do not come from logical (vertical) thought paths, but occur as flashes of insight, often at unlikely times (in the shower, commuting, falling asleep) when the logical left hemisphere of the brain is "turned off." The rational mind then scientifically documents the connections the new idea has brought about and integrates its new contributions with the old. DeBono's work shows that creativity comes from a wholly different arena than the logical thinking so extensively studied and highly prized in a patriarchal society.

Leo Buscaglia, PhD (Personhood--The Art of Being Fully Human), has touched millions of readers and television viewers with his emphasis on love as an important ingredient in wellbeing.

Robert Allen, PhD (Lifegain), developed a model for helping people recognize and change the powerful illness promoting norms of the surrounding culture. Working with orange picking migrant workers in Florida, he brought about amazing changes in their unhealthy lifestyle by introducing new norms to replace those prevalent within their subculture. His work was an inspiration in our work in wellness as it relates to cultural norms, and has been continued through his son, Judd Allen, PhD.

Will Schutz, PhD(Profound Simplicity), led many of the early encounter groups at Esalen and developed the widely used FIRO scales of measuring behavior and feelings. He set up one of the first master's degree programs in holistic studies at Antioch West in San Francisco, and then went on to teach business people that personal empowerment comes with the practice of telling the truth and taking responsibility for it. His training program, The Human Element, has been effectively used by the US Army, NASA, hospitals and numerous private corporations.

Jean Houston, PhD(The Possible Human), has taught thousands to tune in to their own inner wisdom. Drawing on psychology, drama, and ancient mythology, she has synthesized a unique experience of the spiritual with the secular.

Gay Luce, PhD (Biological Rhythms in Human and Animal Physiology), has expanded her original interest in body rhythms to found a Mystery School that teaches people how to attune with the elemental forces of sun, moon, and nature that surround us and influence us more deeply than we realize.

A controversial pioneer is Werner Erhard. Erhard, formerly a used car and encyclopedia salesman, founded an organization (formerly est, which later became Werner Erhard Associates, and then, when he left in the early 90s, became Landmark Education) that has given seminars to over a half million people emphasizing the concepts of self-responsibility and planetary accountability. Erhard developed practical methods of conveying the basic principles of Radical Constructivism. Unfortunately, the organization is set up along strongly patriarchal lines.

A number of other "trainings" have evolved as a result of Erhard's success (e.g., Actualizations, Insight, and Lifespring).

Danaan Parry (Warriors of the Heart), drawing on his work with conflict resolution, formed the Earthstewards Network in 1980. The Network supports its members in blending psychology, peace activism, and planetary consciousness into their daily lives.

Today there is a large sector of psychology that has ceased to follow the authoritarian-oriented science route, and been responsible for a redistribution of knowledge and development of human potential through the myriad self-help books and person-centered approaches. Often disparaged as "pop psychology," nonetheless millions now understand far more about human behavior than even a handful of experts did only a generation ago.

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