Alternative Psychology

When the telephone rings at 4 in the morning, and you answer it, are you intelligible to the person on the other end of the line? If your answer is "no," you may be interested in the following psychological theory.

After thinking about what thinking is, and realizing that changing the basic assumptions of our existing fields of knowledge is a very fruitful approach to new insights, it seemed natural to examine the field of psychology. This field now has and probably deserves a bad rap. This evaluation seems justified by the wonderful test of David Rosenhan at Stanford, when he got his 30 students to pretend to be mentally imbalanced in order to be committed to a variety of insane asylums and then found that most of them couldn't get out. This proves that psychological concepts and definitions can be imaginary and self-fulfilling.

Add to this Robert Bellah's study and critique in Habits of Heart that the prevailing model of normality often encourages people to adjust their own healthy behaviors to conform to corporate norms and at the same time to validate increased personal isolation and selfishness.

In these circumstances, it is good to ask if any of the central assumptions of psychology should be changed. I chose the concept of the two minds, conscious and subconscious. What happens when you eliminate this and substitute something else?

The model I conceived, which is obviously one of many possibilities, is that the mind operates on a continuum, with daily cycles of waking and sleeping. The sleeping period closely resembles the state of an unsocialized child, while the waking process is a daily recapitulation of the socialization process. When you are finally awake, you are near the top of the ladder of socialization.

To understand this on a visceral level, remember the last time you got a phone call at 4 a.m. When this happens to me, I hear the phone ringing and I have the sense of climbing a ladder to get myself together enough to be barely intelligible on the phone. Usually I'm not, especially if I don't expect the call and assume it's a wrong number. If it turns out that the call is important and involves content that I need to remember, I realize that I need to write it down because many former phone calls have been forgotten, and this takes even more effort and further climbing up the ladder.

If we compare this to human socializing, the first hard steps to climb in answering the phone recapitulate the first six years of life, when we learned to talk and socially interact. The next step&emdash;writing something down&emdash;recapitulates the five years of life, during which we learned to read and write.

People are so heavily shaped by their early socialization processes (learning to talk and socially interact, learning to read and write) and their daily recapitulation that it casts doubt on our ability to change our behavior as adults. The nearly universal monastic practice of having a meditation session scheduled for the wake-up period, usually followed by group chanting, appear to me to be based on our inherent cycle of socialization-recapitulation. Meditation serves to extend the socialization-recapitulation period into the monastic daily setting, while chanting brings group socialization to bear on the wake-up process.

Talking to a therapist or counsellor could be seen as merely a kind of socialization that, if it works, becomes embedded in the daily wake-up process. Insofar as it helps people to connect their waking-up mood to their daily behavior, it is consistent with the socialization-recapitulation model and could be helpful in increasing awarenss of one's actions and their consequences.

The most radical implication of this view of the mind is that it takes the mind out of the realm of psychology, which currently resembles a neo-religious field, and places it in the center of a new academic classification that is partly sociology and partly cultural anthropology.

If this view of the mind were accepted, we could expect researchers to examine how people wake up and correlate that to their occupations. Politicians and CEO's, who are well socialized, might be early risers and wake up eagerly; computer programmers might be the opposite and need a great deal of strong coffee to get going.

The wake-up recapitulation model is a simple and obvious example of looking at a whole field of study, identifying its core concept, and creating a new one that radically alters the field. To my total amazement, in reviewing references at the Library of Congress after writing the above, I discovered two research papers that found in the physiology of sleep clear evidence that the chemicals involved in the waking-up process are the ones that are associated with skills acquisition and juvenile maturation.

The two references are:

D. Ganten and S. Pfaff, Sleep: Clinical and Experimental Aspects (Springer Verlag, 1982).

N. P. Koella, ed.,Sleep: Physiology, Biochemistry, Psychology, Pharmacology, Clinical Implication (European Congress of Sleep Research, 1972)


Other references above:

Rosenhan and London, ed., Theory and Research In Abnormal Psychology (Holt, 1975).

Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life ( Univ. California Press; 1996)



Michael Phillips, original 1986 [revised 2000]


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