Tagged: Speculation

Why can psychological therapy be helpful?

Research explaining how therapy might help is filled with very technical terminology, e.g., invoking “transference”, “extinction”, heightening access to “cognitive–emotional structures and processes”, “reconfiguring intersubjective relationship networks” (see over here for more).

Could simpler explanations be provided? Here are some quick thoughts, inspired by literature, discussing with people, and engaging myself as a client in therapy:

  • You know the therapist is there to listen to you — they’re paid to do so — so there’s less need to worry about their thoughts and feelings. One can and is encouraged to talk at length about oneself. This can feel liberating whereas in other settings it might feel selfish or self-indulgent.
  • The therapist keeps track of topics within and across sessions. This can be important for recognising patterns and maintaining focus, whilst allowing time to tell stories, meandering around past experiences, to see where they lead.
  • The therapist has knowledge (e.g., through literature, supervisory meetings, and conversations with other clients) of a range of people who may have had similar feelings and experiences. So although we’re all unique, it can also be helpful to know that others have faced and survived similar struggles — especially if we learn what they tried and what helped.
  • Drawing on this knowledge, the therapist can conjecture what might be going on. This, perhaps, works best if the conjectures are courageous (so a step or two away from what the clients says) — and tentative, so it’s possible to disagree.
  • There can be an opportunity for practice, for instance of activities or conversations which are distressing. Practicing is a good way to learn.
  • Related, there’s a regular structure and progress monitoring (verbally, with a diary, or using questionnaires). Self-reflection becomes routine and constrained in time, like (this might be a bit crude but bear with me) a psychological analogue of flossing one’s teeth.
  • (Idea from Clare) “… daring to talk about things never spoken of before with someone who demonstrates compassion and acceptance; helpful because allows us to face things in ourselves that scare us and develop less harsh ways of responding to ourselves”
  • (added 27/10/2014) The therapist has more distance from situations having an impact on someone than friends might have so, e.g., alternative explanations for interpersonal disputes can more easily be provided.
  • (added 27/10/2014) It’s easier for a therapist to be courageous in interactions and suggestions than for a friend as — if all goes wrong — it’s easier for the client to drop out of the therapeutic relationship without long-term consequences (e.g., there’s no loss of friendship).
  • (added 15/01/2015) Telling your story to a therapist gives you an audience who is missing all of the context of your life. Most of the context can feel obvious, until you start to tell your story. Story telling requires explaining the context, making it explicit. For instance who are the people in your life? Why did you and others say and do the things they did? Perhaps this act of storytelling and making the context explicit also makes it easier to become aware of and find solutions.

Some thoughts…


On the inseparability of intellect and emotion (from 1933)

“[…] Imagine that we are engaged in a friendly serious discussion with some one, and that we decide to enquire into the meanings of words. For this special experiment, it is not necessary to be very exacting, as this would enormously and unnecessarily complicate the experiment. It is useful to have a piece of paper and a pencil to keep a record of the progress.

“We begin by asking the ‘meaning’ of every word uttered, being satisfied for this purpose with the roughest definitions; then we ask the ‘meaning’ of the words used in the definitions, and this process is continued usually for no more than ten to fifteen minutes, until the victim begins to speak in circles—as, for instance, defining ‘space’ by ‘length’ and ‘length’ by ‘space’. When this stage is reached, we have come usually to the undefined terms of a given individual. If we still press, no matter how gently, for definitions, a most interesting fact occurs. Sooner or later, signs of affective disturbances appear. Often the face reddens; there is bodily restlessness; sweat appears—symptoms quite similar to those seen in a schoolboy who has forgotton his lesson, which he ‘knows but cannot tell’. […] Here we have reached the bottom and the foundation of all non-elementalistic meanings—the meanings of undefined terms, which we ‘know’ somehow, but cannot tell. In fact, we have reached the un-speakable level. This ‘knowledge’ is supplied by the lower nerve centres; it represents affective first order effects, and is interwoven and interlocked with other affective states, such as those called ‘wishes’, ‘intentions’, ‘intuitions’, ‘evalution’, and many others. […]

“The above explanation, as well as the neurological attitude towards ‘meaning’, as expressed by Head, is non-elementalistic. We have not illegitimately split organismal processes into ‘intellect’ and ’emotions’.”


Korzybski, A. (1933).  Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics Institute of General Semantics.

Cultural working memory

Individual animals can be thought of as having working memory, a system of temporary stores, and processes for manipulating them. But what about whole cultures? Is there a historical, cultural, analogue? Thinking of how knowledge doesn’t really accumulate accurately. You get the same sorts of gisting effects culturally as you do in individuals (I reckon, when in pub-chat mode). For instance details are omitted from textbook descriptions of studies in psychology—think of the effect on how people view the empirical data!

Competence vs. performance

It’s all Chomsky’s fault apparently (Chomsky 1965, p. 4):

“We thus make a fundamental distinction between competence (the speaker-hearer’s knowledge of his language) and performance (the actual use of language in concrete situations). […] A record of natural speech will show numerous false starts, deviations from rules, changes of plan in mid-course, and so on. The problem for the linguist, as well as for the child learning the language, is to determine from the data of performance the underlying system of rules that have been mastered by the speaker-hearer and that he puts to use in actual performance.”

So the idea is that people are trying to do C but only manage to do P, because of various constraints. We (children, adults, theorists) see (imperfect) P, and want to infer C. We go to school and go through various rigmaroles to better approximate C. The same distinction is applied in reasoning. Various options: people are irrational (with respect to C); maybe C = P, if we look hard enough to see it. Or bright people have P = C. Or bright people want P = C.

What fascinates me in reasoning is the role played by small groups of experts who produce particular systems of reasoning—logical calculi, probabilistic machinery—along with proofs that they have properties which they argue are reasonable properties to have. Then others come along to use the systems. Hey, this looks like a good logic to know; maybe it’ll help make my arguments better if I use it. Maybe this probability calculus will make it easier to diagnose illness in my patients. And so forth. Then somebody else comes along and decides whether or not we’re consistent with a competence theory’s judgements, or whether we’re interpreting things a different way; whether another competence theory (application thereof) might be more appropriate for a given situation or a different psychological model of the situation.

Easy to get tied up in knots.

I don’t like the competence/performance distinction.  Maybe I just don’t like the words.  I’ll make a stab at expressing why one day…


Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press.

Proximity and friendship

A friend and I used to speculate about the role of proximity, layout of tables, etc, in influencing the chances of meeting new people. The pub conversations (minus the anecdotally useful bit about table topologies*—it’s a very slow running process) were partly satirised in Fugard (2006). But I wasn’t really joking.

Anyway, was pleased to see Back, Schmukle, and Egloff (2008) have performed a Real Experiment on related issues. I’ll let you read the paper and judge for yourself if you believe it, but the punchline is:

“coincidentally being near another person or being in the same group with him or her during an initial encounter may promote the development of a friendship with that person. In a nutshell, people may become friends simply because they drew the right random number. Thus, becoming friends may indeed be due to chance.”


Fugard, A. (2006). A theory of hubs, ruins, and blockers. Bluebook note 1555, Mathematical Reasoning Group, The University of Edinburgh.

Mitja D. Back, Stefan C. Schmukle, Boris Egloff (2008). Becoming Friends by Chance. Psychological Science, 19 (5) , 439–440.

* If you want to experience the phenomena yourself, and live in Edinburgh, try going upstairs in Opium, to the GRV, or to Ecco Vino. All very different places, but note the table layouts. In each of these places I have found the likelihood of speaking to some random person/people much higher than elsewhere.

Theorist's theories versus punter's theories: a theory

  1. Theorists develop theories of punters.
  2. Punters develop theories of punters.
  3. Theorists’ theories tend to be
    1. more detailed than punters’,
    2. yet still influenced by punters’ theories,
    3. use funnier terminology, and
    4. often point out inadequacies of punters’ theories.
  4. Theorists occasionally have to communicate their theories to punters (to show the economic validity of their work, for instance), thus
    1. encouraging punter-to-theorist transformation, and
    2. modifying some punters’ theories so they
      1. are more detailed than other punters’,
      2. yet still influenced by other punters’ theories,
      3. use funnier terminology than other punters, and
      4. often point out inadequacies of other punters’ theories.
  5. All theorists are punters, the punters believe.
  6. Some punters are not theorists, the theorists believe.
  7. Phenomenology is A Bit Funny.
  8. The map is not the territory (and those who don’t get this will become ill).
  9. All theorists and punters want to find a niche for purposes of
    1. money (food, shelter, etc) and
    2. sex.
  10. The degree to which they find this niche is influenced by the relationship between their theories and the theories believed by those in their environment.