Adam Blatner

(Supplement to a Presentation to the Conference of  the American Creativity Association,  Austin Texas March 23, 2007)

What a mouthful! I coined this term to refer to the way that psychology is gradually penetrating the culture as a mainstream idea. Science did this a century or so ago, and many popular magazines have been talking up science. Psychology is still not part of the core curriculum, but it should be! This paper presents some implications of the emergence of practical psychology in mainstream culture, especially regarding work, education, and everyday life. A number of developments have made it more possible to apply the best insights of psychology in many sectors of our culture, and also these promote the underlying components of creative thinking.

My hope is that people who develop this body of knowledge and skills will in turn:
    * have better access their natural flow of imaginative ideas
    * be more aware of the degrees of their own performance
    * be more sensitive to the subtle gradient of preferences in the interpersonal field
    * recognize some of the factors operating in the culture to inhibit or promote creativity, and
    * weave a measure of playfulness into the task of exploring a problem creatively.

That this presentation is given at a conference about creativity gives me more courage to dare to "neologize,"--- there's another word I just made up, meaning (in a verb form) to make up new words, neologisms. So “psychological-ization” is also a neologism. I think that part of creativity in the evolving "word world" is that people make up all sorts of new words to describe emerging trends. In this case, to say again, psychological-ization is a word that means the process of the society beginning to incorporate an increasing amount of awareness of and skills in practical psychology.

I am going to give a rough number just to give a sense of where we’re coming from and where we’re going. I think, on a scale of from zero to a hundred, with zero being almost no psychological mindedness and a hundred being a culture that fully integrates the implications of this new field, that we are at 20. A century ago, we were at maybe 2 - 5.

If this number represented a penetration of the idea into culture, we could do something similar for, say, science, which I’d put at a 70. That doesn’t mean that people know a lot about science, but they accept that it’s a meaningful force. They accept that experts have something to say, and it should affect social policy.  Rationality itself may be at around 90. Again, folks can be powerfully irrational, but often these same folks make some pretense that they are rational. It’s the present worldview, value, common sense. It wasn’t 500 years ago in the West, when more magical and superstitious, faith-filled and unthinking-acceptance-of-authority and tradition was dominant.

Psychology is making progress, but it still operates under a cloud of suspicion. For every self-help book there are cartoons and stigma, and “so you’re a psychologist” in a social situation may just as well be met with embarrassed wariness (“Now don’t analyze me!”) or scorn (“Oh, a psychiatrist? I hear they’re crazier than the patients”).

I want to suggest that it is time that psychology become as core of an element in our culture as basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. We need practical psychology throughout the school even more than we need algebra, much of literature, a fair amount of history, and so forth. People need to learn how to negotiate, communicate, problem-solve, re-establish their own self-management, discover their identity in a fragmented socio-cultural milieu, and find meaning in a postmodern world. These aren’t meant to be big words, but speak to the stresses on kids, parents, ordinary people. What are those stresses and challenges about? What do people need in the way of basic skills, concepts, tools to meet the realities of life in a changing culture?

On the outside, Gore and others are warning about global warming and ecological challenges. But if we’re going to meet those challenges, we need the ability to work in a committee or organization, a political task force or a business, without that business spiraling into dysfunction as caricaturized by the Dilbert cartoon strip. Alas, too many people who have worked in groups and organizations have wryly noted that Dilbert’s world is often not too far from their reality.

It doesn’t have to be that way. This is intimately related to any efforts to bring more creativity to work or school, home or church. All that higher cortical freedom of ideas is based on a context of relative safety, and the brain shuts down in contexts of anxiety, fear, distrust, shame, or threat of shame. These contexts involve not just social norms, but also the vibrancy of social connections, support, and skills for asking for support. (Lots of people won’t ask for support, supposing it to be a sign of weakness. This is nuts. There is a lot of minor nutsiness in the world—I may just write about this category. All the stuff that lots of folks consciously or subconsciously take for granted that just ain’t so. Minor nutsiness.)

Another way to think of the extreme prevalence of a wide range of minor nutsiness is that it is simple ignorance. Until recently, there has been widespread ignorance about nutrition, and nutritional disorders, pellagra, beri beri, rickets, scurvy, and other conditions you hardly hear about anymore were by no means uncommon. Until recently, there was widespread ignorance about germs, cleanliness of food and water, and widespread endemic and epidemic diseases were also common. The same thing is true in the world of psychology.

For a while it had to do with sex. Not just Freud, but around that time and for a few decades afterwards there were a goodly number of people just wanting to get the word out about basic information, the names and basic anatomy of the organs involved. There were taboos. There were really painful—both physical and psychological—conditions and situations that were tragically unnecessary, due to simple ignorance. There continues to be other sex-related issues that cause widespread emotional dis-ease, maybe not diagnosable, but prevalent, disruptive, stressful, and unnecessary.

For a short time, in the mid-60s, you heard of assertiveness training. It’s still around, and the lack of assertiveness is still extremely prevalent. For a lot of folks, it’s not even a category. The world is what it is. You mean there are alternatives? I never knew I had a choice.

Feminism was and continues to be in part about this psychological slavery, and slave-mentality. Many other kinds of anti-oppression work addresses the phenomenon not just of the rich landowners exploiting the peasants, but a host of everyday situations that are just given, with few voices in clear opposition to, say, the pressures of makeup, uncomfortable and unhealthful shoes, corsets, hair styles, fashions, and so forth. And the list goes on.

I want to suggest that the overall enterprise of promoting creativity is operating within a socio-cultural system that is at best half-evolved, half-civilized, and likely not even that. We’re trying to optimize our human potentialities within emotional contexts that more often counter our efforts. It’s like trying to do surgery in the era before antiseptics, sterile technique, antibiotics, and anesthesia. Mortality was high. Yet that’s how it was done for millennia. (The history of surgery is pretty appalling until a bit more than a century ago.)

So this is an appeal to bringing some respect to psychology.

Psychology’s Own Hindrances

Of course, psychology has unwittingly participated in its own stigmatization. It began as an academic field, looking at the mathematics of perception. It advanced through rigorous science, what has been called “rat psychology,” working in a fairly reductionistic way.

From another quarter arose psychoanalysis. I credit these pioneers and explorers for their courage, but too quickly they were treated not as early explorers, but as authorities, as if their conclusions were final. In truth, they were only cracks in the door. Alas, they began to be treated more like religion, with true believers, outsiders treated as apostates or heretics rather than as scientific pioneers continuing the explorations, and this slowed things down considerably.

The sociology of psychoanalysis added to the problem—a very complex history, involving the possibly unwise move to medicalize psychotherapy in the 1930s in the United States—a move that Freud objected to strenuously—and then the undoing of this beginning in the later 1960s. There was the oddity of the terminology, the over-focus on distasteful and counter-intuitive images, the “angry breast,” the mythologized “Oedipal complex,” and so forth, all of which made practical psychology weird. Louis B. Mayer, the Hollywood producer, spoke for many when he unwittingly witticized that “Anyone who sees a psychiatrist should have his head examined.”

The method turned people off, the whole couch and silent doc. It was an exotic treatment favored by some intellectual sub-groups, but mainly caricaturized by cartoonists. The patients had to be rich, generally viewed as self-indulgent and morally weak. And the psychiatrists who treated them unhealthily morally neutral, so that mental health professionals were widely perceived as making excuses for the wicked, testifying for serial killers and rapists, and mocked in the songs of Westside Story as the delinquents sang about their social worker’s overprotective diagnoses: “I’m not bad, I’m just socially maladjusted.”

Beginning more around 1970, several counter trends emerged. Non-psychiatrists became therapists, and pastoral counseling has continued to develop so that hospital chaplains often do much more work than the role advocated in the 1960s for “consultation-liaison psychiatry.” This move also helped to heal the breach between what was seen as an anti-religious profession (an accusation that was in the main valid) and the mainly religious majority.

Other trends included the emergence of feminism, the shift in gender so that now the majority of therapists in the country are women—not an insignificant professional shift!—, the emergence of the awareness of addictions, sexual abuse, and post-traumatic conditions, the recognition that many people were co-morbid—i.e., they exhibited features or suffered from more than one diagnosis, such as being both post-traumatic and abusive of drugs or alcohol—not an uncommon mixture—, and so forth.

Meanwhile, business began to recognize that psychologically ignorant people created problems such as overly angry bosses, disorganized and passive-aggressive or sabotaging subordinates, petty fights and territory struggles, and general shallowness, such as the continuing exercise of sexual harassment, bullying, racism, and other problems at work. It wasn’t just the cost of legal fees to defend lawsuits. Good people were lost to competitors. Psychological stupidity has continued to become more recognized as bad business, a significant element in why businesses get into trouble.

Meanwhile again, in the schools, the bar has been raised. What was generally accepted as given – nothing to be done, boys will be boys, etc.– bullying, fighting, racism, harassment— now school administrators are being called to account, lawsuits are fired, and let’s not forget the impact of Columbine and similar situations. As a result, increasing numbers of schools are taking up again some few efforts begun in the 1960s and earlier to weave a measure of psychological sensitivity into the curriculum. Social and emotional learning, it’s called.

For a long time there have been advice to the lovelorn and family troubles columnists in selected newspapers, and this tradition expanded. The profession of marriage and then family counselor has burgeoned and the field has expanded tremendously. In the 1960s, still, the majority of therapy was conducted by psychiatrists, with other professionals moving up. By the late 1970s, the psychiatrists had begun to retreat to a more medicalized role, while clinical psychologists, clinical social workers, psychiatric nurse-practitioners, pastoral counselors, marriage and family counselors, and other professional disciplines increased. Some were more trained than others. The actual history is quite complex.

The mass media has included increasing amounts of psychology, in women’s magazines, a bit gradually in men’s magazines—mainly relating to sex. Psychosocial problems and issues have come to be the focus of feature articles in the major newsmagazines. Offhand, there have been a fair number of issues devoted to changing sex roles, autism, reading problems, child and adolescent development, depression in men, and on and on.

Self-help books have come to occupy an increasing number of shelves in bookstores and libraries, and there is an increasing cross-over of psychology and related fields—spiritual development, mind-body development, psychic development, organizational development, and so forth.

Cultivating Intuition

One area that creativity development has in common with applied psychology is the recognition and utilization of what has come to be called the whole brain, both sides. Over the last half-century, research has reinforced that certain functions such as language and sequential reasoning tends to be more associated with the left cerebral hemisphere, while spatial organization, intuition, imagination, and emotion tends to be more associated with the right cerebral hemisphere, sometimes just called “right brain.” Both types of function need to be balanced and integrated for optimal creativity.

Psychology has come to recognize something similar, because merely intellectual insight doesn’t really do the job in therapy, and merely intellectual analysis of many kinds of situations doesn’t yield much useful understanding. More domains need to be brought into play. Play itself needs to be brought into play, which suggests the way that many right-brain functions were considered to be of lesser value, childish, regressive, and so forth. That these capacities could be cultivated, trained, practiced, was relatively unappreciated. This is just beginning to be remedied.

The Importance of Relationship

To say that these various elements need to be coordinated may seem obvious, but again I want to call your attention to the many operations in our culture that have come to be mechanistic. One of these is the seeming validity and power of statistics. If statistics show that more men are this way, there’s a foolish tendency to think that policy can be made about men. The vibrant minority of those who buck the trend are ignored!  The point to be critiqued here—well, there are several of them. One is the type of generalized statistical research, an approach that has been given too much credit and validity. It should have some, and at the same time, the limits of that approach should be appreciated!

Another critique is that the mechanistic approach tends to assume people to be somewhat rational, choice-making, etc., and it ignores the far more pervasive influence of a number of factors that most people don’t want to admit:
   – many don’t really understand themselves, their lives, and have few mental tools to advance their self-understanding. Many see no reason to pursue that goal.
    – many think of increasing their understanding as requiring psychoanalysis, expensive, one-to-one, undergoing a dubious procedure with dubious anticipated results. That there are more practical, down-to-earth approaches is hardly considered.
     – few know a language for talking or thinking about psycho-social matters, other than a pseudo-jargon that really distorts the process and hints at blame and one-upsmanship

More fundamental is the general cultural context, one that values strength, independence, moral conviction. The idea of calling oneself into question, of exploring one’s own assumptions, strikes of doubt to a fault rather than intelligent humility. Such distinctions need to be drawn more consciously, so that a balance of doubt and boldness can ensue.

Future Trends

The good news is that there are increasing efforts and new developments that should help the process move along. One of these—or at least a candidate— is my own use of the role concept as the basis for a user-friendly language. There’s too much jargon in psychology, each term reflecting the thick theory from which it arises. The role concept is closer to the ordinary language of the people, with a slight emphasis on using the dramaturgical metaphor, all the world’s a stage. You talk about situations in terms of the roles people play in that scene, and the inner roles, sub-roles, and so forth. You help bring out the hidden voices of the players.

Another variation I bring to the table—again, as a candidate—is that of helping people to think like actors rather than like textbooks, to imagine what it’s like to be rather than to draw on answers from the book. We come from an answer-oriented educational system, but in the real world, many if not most things aren’t concerned with right or wrong answers. We need to cultivate more imaginativeness than merely fill memory. Anyway, the kinds of stuff that needs to be memorized tends to be quickly lost if not used, and much of it also gets replaced in time with new information.

One of the people skills I use is to think and make inferences, opening to the inspiration from the creative unconscious. This is what improvisation is about, and dramatic improvisation, especially, when working with others, trying to empathize. One approach to empathy is to imagine what it’s like to be, but only in one role at a time. If we try to understand the whole of another person it becomes quickly overloading, because real people are a mixture of around 20 or more major roles, a hundred minor roles, and a thousand transient roles. So one needs to work moment to moment, imagining specific situations.

Another way to say this is that technologies are emerging that can foster creativity on many levels. Art, music, poetry, dance, and–best known to me—variations of drama, can all be used as tools for problem solving, more effective communication, and woven in, heightened self-awareness.

The Temperamental Artist

This idea that the creative spirit must be temperamental or difficult is a cop-out. These images are publicized, but in fact there are many relatively mature and congenial artists also, though their escapades don’t become so dramatically turbulent. Peter Kramer in a recent book recently took on the cliche of the romanticization of depression, and critiqued this symbol. His point is that people can also create without having to be susceptible to the life-sucking forces of depression, and the image of the suffering artist is a “sour grapes” rationalization. Similarly, one can be original, unconventional, interesting—now, more than ever—, without having to be inter-personall unpleasant, tactless, crude, and so forth.

Indeed, we might get more art done, more creativity done, within a matrix of (dare I say) greater civility, since civilization itself is a general aggregate of innumerable civil efforts. But it takes a bit of studied tact, diplomacy, self-awareness, humility, and other acts that go to the spirit of courtesy (not just the superficial elements of etiquette), and these efforts are more important in a multi-cultural world.

Psychology has been around for over a century, gradually becoming popularized. That process has had a variety of sub-trends, from the warnings against spoiling children around the 1920s (and the famed Doctor Spock having followed a quarter-century later to counter its impact on child-rearing), to the prevalence of the cartoons and cliche of psychoanalysis. While appreciating some of its insights, as a whole, the impact of psychoanalysis as a cultural phenomenon has been most mixed, evoking feelings of contempt for psychology perhaps much more than sympathy. So the process has had to fight against popular stereotypes.

Another element in the image of psychology has been its association with mental illness, and the general stigma against mental illness of all kinds, associating these conditions with moral weakness, malingering, self-indulgence, and excuses from responsibility and even crime!

The point I’m making is that this vast field has also come up with many useful insights that people today need to apply in work, various social organizations, and everyday life. Practical psychology needs to be taught as a core subject in schools starting in elementary school, as it deals with the acquiring of the kinds of social and emotional skills they need to cope with a rapidly changing postmodern world.

Consequences of Complexification

The need for psycholog-ization is greater in a postmodern era in which a number of varied socio-cultural forces operate to dilute the mental anchor points from the past, introduce new types of options and stimuli, and so forth. As a result, people are challenged to take more individual responsibility for subtle aspects of their own social connectedness, personal meaning systems, goal management, and so forth that had previously been products of their own subcultures. As these become increasingly fragmented, the individual must pick and choose which elements from which sub-culture she chooses to identify with, utilize, believe, and in other ways relate to.

The complexity of the psychological field has become exponentially more complex. This has happened in other fields, also, whether astronomy or cell anatomy and biology. The advance of science has opened up many horizons, wavelengths, ways of examining aspects of phenomena that had seemed simpler in the past. (For example, the Hubble telescope for a while focused on the “emptiest” sector of space it could find—the “blackest” sky—, took a long exposure, and discovered in its “deep field” many thousands of incredibly dim objects, mainly far-distant galaxies. As another example, improvements in electron miscroscopy have revealed complexities in the structures of cells that hadn’t been imagined before the development of that technology.)

In psychology, we are finding subtle variations and gradients of a wide range of factors that hadn’t been appreciated much before the 1950s (as with the telescope and microscope):
   Dimensions of communication, styles, non-verbal sub-types, etc.
   Cognitive Learning Styles and sub-types of learning disabilities
   Different types of intelligence
   “Shadow” Disorders, subclinical tendencies, not full-blown diagnoses, but features, mild forms, of Obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, attention deficit disorder, schizophreniform traits, hypomania, and so forth... enough to distort the quality of life, though generally not enough to cause job loss, family break-up—well, sometimes—and/or hospitalization.
    Addictions—again, other than the obvious ones of alcohol and/or drugs—and these may be subtle, affecting life more or less depending on when it edges on becoming maladaptive:
Eating, shopping, going into debt, clutter, sex, dieting, internet, videogames, sports, etc.
   Trauma is far more pervasive in many ways: Minor trauma also occurs. A trauma (as I’m using the term) differs from a stress in that it shifts the basic assumption pattern. In trauma, in contrast to mere stress, the victim shifts his or her deep intuitions about the trustworthiness of the world, other people, and oneself, the nature of one’s identity, and other fundamental categories.
    As a result, there is a numbing, a hardening, and even a kind of repetition compulsion as the person unconsciously sets up situations to demonstrate to himself that he can master these painful experiences, can “handle it” so that it doesn’t “bother him.”
       (The sexual revolution has generated a layer of “hardening” so that the “mature” person is imagined as “cool” enough not to be deeply disturbed by the breaking up of a relationship. It doesn’t really work, though, because although one can pretend—even to oneself—not to be hurt, in fact, the hurt is there, and generates layers of consequences in psychosomatic and relational reactions.)
Again, cultural factors have intensified some of these issues. As all technologies (including psychology and education) advance, aspirations follow, so parents want more for their kids, individuals want more out of life for themselves. They “raise the bar” of expectations.
   Psychosomatic conditions. (Progress in this field seems to be inhibited by the bias of mainstream science that still separates mind and body—an example of cultural lag and sheer denial in the service of the dominant economy, one that assumes that people can be thought about as if they were fungible, exchange-able, like parts in a machine. Large number statistics give that impression by their sheer prevalence, marginalizing the complexity of individual stories.)
    Disorders of meaning, previously called existential angst, meaninglessness, alienation, etc. Often these are unconscious, and reflect cognitive dissonances among the various meaning-giving symbol systems and relationships within the mind and social networks. Religion, of course, is a key player here, but also other less obvious sources of value. Many people give lip service to religion, but priorities lie more in other categories, such as the many subtypes of social status.       

Other Aspects

A group of fields, collectively called the Creative and Expressive Arts Therapies, respond to the interface of psychology and creativity in the domain of helping people–either identified patients, or even healthy people wanting to become even healthier— to integrate the many dimensions of intuition, imagination, body-knowing, and the like in responding to the challenge of living with greater vitality and meaning.

Related to this, the psychology of religion has been advanced over the years, beginning over a century ago with William James’ The Psychology of Religious Experience, but cross-fertilized by many workers who have considered the cross-cultural phenomena, the influx of ideas from the Orient, and in general considering the common denominators among the many kinds of religion. This in turn has been integrated with the search for meaning. Whereas, for a while, psychology seemed to struggle against a certain kind of religiosity, increasingly it has found areas of synergy. The sub-field called transpersonal psychology specifically makes use of the spiritual as a framework for deep personal development and healing. No specific belief system is promoted, nor any particular dogma. Rather, the client’s interest in meaning and purpose is integrated into the process, rather than being referred to a clergy. This is important, because often the struggle involved may be against the religion of one’s background, and towards the search for a more congenial complex of doctrines and practices. So the arts and religion are also part of psychologization.
The notes above are preliminary and will be expanded. They are meant as a beginning exposition of the thesis that psychology needs to be brought into the cultural mainstream.

I would be very receptive to comments and suggestions for revision:

Return to Top                        Comments welcome. Email author at