Monday, March 2, 2015

Ways of Thinking: From Art to Social Science

This blog originally appeared on September 11, 2013.

The chromatic gradation effect.

I entered into psychology as many of us do; through the life-theorists. I call them life-theorist because they are not merely clinicians who treat the psychologically disturbed, but also, they think about our common experiences of living, and how to go about those experiences most effectively. They can also be called life philosophers because their interest is often less on acquiring facts and more on effective living. Most of us enter into psychology via our interest in Freud, Maslow, Jung, and others that have come to be called psychotherapists. For me psychology was never wholly about therapy and patients; it was more about living, life, and thinking; the psychology of the practitioner.

Once one is in it, one realizes that the field of study is not really a field at all, but rather, fields. We find psychologies rather than psychology. These psychologies each have a unique set of definitions, practices, and ideologies that defines their practices. We sometimes meet another "psychologist" who holds a view similar to ours, of what psychology is.

The first thing we learn about the psychologies is that there are two, distinct, practices. One psychology is that of the research psychologist. Primarily interested in the social, abnormal, personal, cognitive, emotional, perceptual, sensorial, or biological aspects of being human, these folks employ a variety of research methods to either explore, describe, or write the laws of human and nonhuman phenomenon. These psychologists spend their time researching; choosing and using various research methods (choosing the methods that best suit their beliefs about doing research) in order to test, develop, and work through their ideas.

The other side of the field, what we call clinical-counseling psychology, is comprised of individuals who think about, research, and impart strategies for living. This area of study and practice extends from helping the severely mentally ill, considering how to better communicate and interact with others, to exploring the very concept of the existence of the self. Practitioners of this kind of psychology work with others, using their one-on-one and group experiences as research information, to establish their ideas.

I entered psychology as a second profession. I had spent the first  decade of my adult life studying classical music in both European and American conservatories. An art school, music conservatory education is comprised of studio time (we use practice rooms, which are small closets with a piano and a music stand), one-on-one lessons with a master teacher, various classes in the practice, history, understanding, performing, and creation of music, as well as ensemble rehearsal (chamber music and symphony orchestra). There were distinct differences between my music education and my psychology education. Music school, like most art programs, is a unique experience which reminds me of an ancient master-apprentice model of learning. Contrastingly, the academic university system is mostly a classroom experience. In the conservatory we had to perform pieces for our "grade" (something most of my teachers rolled their eyes at), in this university we took tests, delivered and wrote papers for our grade.

Upon entering the university, I was immediately captivated by what was called the science of psychology; the use of the scientific method. I was taught that this is what made psychology a "science".

Not unlike music theory, in which each note is analyzed in the context of its harmony and progression, scientific psychology seemed to get to the foundation of what it was considering. I have always relied on analogical thinking to grasp new ideas. It seemed like an easy enough comparison; music had theorist who analyzed its form, harmony, progression, rhythm, and dynamics; we even referred to these as the elements of music. Like the ingredients of a recipe, things could be broken down and analyzed by the elements and procedures that brought them about. It is important to note that in conservatory we never assumed that these elements caused the music. We looked at analysis as a description, not as an ultimate explanation of music. We all understood the function of a V-chord in an I-IV-V progression, but we never felt that the progression (or the chord) caused the music. We simply understood the harmonic analysis as a symbolic representation of the music itself. I would say that, if asked what caused the music, most musicians would say that it was caused by the composer or the performer. As for the emotional aspect of music, that was enisled to our private conversations. Most of my professional musician colleagues were likely to discuss technical aspects of music rather than the emotional experience of the music. Even when emotion was discussed it was referred to as "interpretation" of the composer's intention.

It seems that music theory is the science of music. The observation, description, and even control (there are long-respected rules of composition that all conservatory students learn) of the musical elements is the mission of music theory. However, we never mistook the theory of music as the cause of the music. In this sense, musicians view analysis as description; not as cause and effect lawfulness.

In science, or more accurately in the philosophy of science, we discuss two different kinds of scientific lawfulness: causal laws and correlational laws. Causal laws describe how events are causally related. Correlational laws describe how a events reliably occur together, but do not necessarily have a causal relationship. In our thought experiment of music theory as a scientific method, we can understand harmonic analysis as a description of correlational laws; the harmonic or melodic progression is not seen as the cause of the phenomenon, but rather, a useful description of it. A graphic analysis of a piece of music might be similar to an fMRI image of the brain, in that it displays a symbolic representation of the elements of the phenomenon. Whereas my first thinking about psychological phenomenon was informed by musical art and the humanities, my second inquiry led me to the natural and social sciences. Each

Science, it has been said, is a method; a step-by-step procedure that, if followed, results in reliable models of the phenomenon being studied (Popper). It has also been argued that science is a social action, one that moves by economic, political, and social pressures (Kuhn). The natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, and some areas of psychology) study physical stuff. The scientific study of society, economy, emotions, cognitions, and behaviors are called social sciences. Sometimes social scientists are dedicated to defending the status of their discipline as a science, against the natural scientists' criticism that it is a soft science. It has been my experience that a scientist's concern with being a scientist is one that is observed more amongst the social scientists than amongst the natural scientists.

Max Wertheimer, originator of Gestalt theory.
One psychological tradition, in particular, has resonated with me both as a social scientist and as an artist. The Gestalt tradition, originating with Max Wertheimer, continues to bridge the two worlds of art and science for me. The Gestalt theorists were interested in how contextual structures determine meaning. In psychology we find the Gestaltists exploring the then new medium of motion pictures, Virtual Reality, art, and social meaning. Kurt Lewin, who is considered to be the founder of social psychology, was a Gestalt thinker. The essence of the Gestalt position is best expressed, I believe, in the chromatic gradation effect in the above graphic. We find here the phenomenon take on meaning in relation to their environment. The Gestalt (the grounding) is the empirical or rational background that the phenomenon emerges within. Like notes in a chord or melody, we manifest not from our environment but with it.