Perhaps just to prompt those who have given some thought to how philosophical insights might play a role in practical terms in other fields, here is my response to this question. Cheers, CMS
A Primer on a Spinozan Applied Psychology
With the re-emergence of Spinoza’s “Ethics’ from its consignment to the bin, comes a reawakening.
The enormous breadth and diversity within the topics which were the focus of his intense scrutiny
and incomparable genius are none more critical to solving our 21st century
conundrums than his remarkable psychology.
Eventually and before much more time elapses the application of his understanding of
the human emotions and the role that these ‘passions’ play in mental health
will form the baseline of a new paradigm
Economist on Psychiatry
This piece employs as a take-off point, two letters written by practicing psychiatrists in response to a book review in the Economist on the state of psychiatric treatment and the lack of any workable paradigm for identifying ailments. This has resulted in a less than optimum state wherein the bulk of treatments derive only through recognizing and treating symptoms.
This lack of any paradigm-based assessment leaves mental-health specialists operating without any solid foundation or baseline.
Additionally, no consideration is made for the emotional states which always accompany psychological distress. Medical students specializing in psychiatry neither study the feelings of the well, nor consider what feelings are for. Of the 4,500 pages in America’s most popular psychiatry textbook, normal emotions get half a page. Moreover, when it comes to diagnosis, they fail to consider underlying causes.
It would not be incorrect to state that when searching for causes for mental affliction more emphasis is placed on the effects of external pressures than on the inner psychological health of the patient.
The current version of the American “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders” (DSM-5) defines hundreds of disorders solely by their symptoms. Depression, for example, means at least two weeks experiencing five or more of eight symptoms, such as loss of pleasure in life, loss of appetite and feelings of worthlessness. The diagnosis is the same if you have just been bereaved or divorced or lost your job.
These quotations excerpted from these two letters are not intended as some type of broad incrimination of practices within psychiatry, but rather as evidence that even practitioners admit of the need for better attempts to rework or replace the current platform or paradigm.
‘Your review of two psychiatry books made so many assertions in need of contextualization that I must condense my points (“The wisdom of sorrow”, April 13th). Diagnostic thresholds are falling, and the prescription of contested medications (statins, aspirin) are increasing, across all areas of medicine, not just psychiatry; the harm wrought by missteps in medicine’s history are by no means confined to the 1800s and greatly exceed the equivalent in psychiatry; the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders explicitly warns against the “checklist approach to diagnosis” of which you accuse it; and, despite being a psychiatrist myself, I have yet to meet a single one who says we understand the “chemical imbalance” that you say we say causes mental illness: humans are clearly vastly more complex than that.
Here are some facts. Suicide is falling globally; numerous studies and millions of patients confirm the usefulness of psychiatry treatments; we don’t know the biological basis of mental illness because we don’t know how the brain works on a good day, let alone a bad one; and—guess what?—psychiatry, like all areas of medicine, is imperfect and we must do better. We will.’
[This is excerpted from an Economist letter commenting on the reliance of psychiatric treatment regimens on an overreliance of drugs which effectively subdue the patient’s metabolism and block and mask the symptoms of the disorder]
‘Would these goals have been achievable in the days before Big Pharma stepped in? In the case of the man with the mood disorder and the meth abuser, definitely not. In the other two, [whose symptoms did not require an immediate and drastic intervention] yes, with a great deal of patience and determination.
Big Pharma has serious drawbacks. There is a risk of over-reliance on medication at the expense of relationship-building and exploring emotional conflict. But meds have earned a place in the fight against disabling illness.’
Drawing attention to the acknowledged shortcomings in treatment and absence of any coherent theoretical underpinnings for treating mental health afflictions in psychiatry does not mark the beginning of some diatribe against the discipline itself.
It is merely to serve as an introduction to a new methodology based upon the crucial and pivotal role played by human emotions in every and all psychological disturbance. The corrective for this comes exclusively to us from the genius and unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the human mind and body of one Baruch Spinoza. His Psychology comprises Parts Three, Four and Five of his master work the “Ethics”.
Of the 4,500 pages in America's most popular psychiatry textbook, normal emotions get half a page. ... Apr 6th 2019. The Economist
This line from a recent book review speaks volumes about the current state of assessment and treatment of psychiatric illnesses today. To have virtually no interest or understanding whatsoever of the potential impact of a patient’s emotional profile and the role that these emotions play in the condition presenting itself is tantamount to admitting that other than dulling someone’s sensibility with chemicals or attempting to diagnose a malady by searching for repressed anxieties, clinical practice has little to offer by way of palliative or treatment for the array of mental afflictions which affect many millions in the world today.
Meanwhile, sitting on a library shelf in every university in America sits a potential antidote to this dismal circumstance; a copy of Spinoza’s “Ethics”, just gathering dust and biding its time, waiting for the moment when someone or something awakens this sleepy world to the brilliant insights on human psychology and the human emotions waiting inside this book.
The thinking goes that thinkers from earlier eras, no matter what their ‘message’ may have been, that is, that their thoughts are outmoded and have been superseded by contemporary ‘advances’ over whatever came before. Without concerning ourselves over the authenticity in this belief or of performing some type of comparative analysis between now and then, we do know for certain that we live in challenging times. In the OECD world, of countries with advanced economies, distrust in Government and in one another, whether at the National, Federal or local level is widespread, and with good reason. That same distrust holds even more certain for the less developed economies, where old fashioned tyranny and dictatorship has been replaced but not upgraded. Tyranny’s replacement is a new form of repression termed ‘illiberal democracy’; there is a voting process, but typically only one candidate who cannot lose. No opposition is permitted and individuals are repressed and their rights violated.
These conditions have brought about a widespread sense of despair with its accompanying loss of hope for the future. That’s the one thing that both rich and poor have in common world-wide.
As far as the individual’s psychological balance is concerned, many types of psychological affliction are evidenced; mental illness, domestic abuse, suicide rates, addictions of all sorts and just a general sense of malaise seem to be on the rise everywhere.
It’s not as if life is not good in the main and that living conditions including sanitation, healthcare and nutrition have stretched life-spans literally dozens of years beyond what was once thought imaginable.
But many people are comforted little by these advances.
Many people have been forced to seek assistance either in mental health counselling or in full-fledged psychiatric care. Many others remain lost and without ministration or care. One example, the state of Oregon records the highest number of citizens suffering from some type of mental health issue coupled with the lowest number of treatment facilities in the United States.
Meanwhile, we continue to believe that our ‘modern’ take on psychological assessment and treatment must surely have brought us to the leading edge and to a highpoint in what has been garnered and accumulated from the best that history has had on offer; in this essay the contention will be to adamantly demur on that point and to offer an alternative approach to assessing and treating the nature and level of mental affliction in any given person’s life. This ‘method’ will be derived from Spinoza’s unique understanding of human psychology and will be ‘abstracted’ from his “Ethics’ Parts Three, Four and Five. These three parts, taken together form the body of Spinoza’s capture of the origin and nature of the emotions or in contemporary terminology, applied psychological assessment and treatment.
In Spinoza’s psychology everything begins with an awareness of the basic psychological core and essence of an individual’s existence. He termed it ‘conatus’ or the non-conscious urge to prevail-in-existing. This ‘driver’ acts on the nervous system in conjunction with external impulses which originate in ‘impressions’ or signals emanating from other people and the objects which surround us. These signals are converted inside the body into electronic impulses which trigger what Spinoza terms either ‘desire’ or ‘appetite’. The definitions of these terms need to be understood as fluctuating states which when responded to result in either and increase or decrease in a person’s power to survive. These fluctuations accompany mental states which exhibit in the individual either psychological maturity, evidenced by a peaceful composure and even-tempered demeanor or in recognizable distress and instability. These fluctuations vacillate in each of us and cause the mood swings which disarm and worry us concerning our mental health.
Once reaching a tipping point these perturbations completely upset an individuals ‘balance’ and result in some type of mental affliction.
Of course, in this brief essay, time and space will not allow for any detailed expansion of these clearly generalized observations. That work will come later and will require the ablest among our psychologists and psychiatrists to flesh out by using Spinoza’s psychology as a template of the ‘emotions’ and as a guide for establishing normative treatment regimens. But for now;
This piece will end with a little ‘thought experiment’. In the opening paragraph a description was offered of some of the psychological ‘discomfort’ which has become a salient feature and side effect of living in our contemporary world.
Mentioned was made above of an early stage alternative to the applied Behavioral Psychological Paradigm which serves as platform for most evaluation and treatment today, for mental distress.
Here it is;
Spinoza’s Psychology- Illustrated/Sketched Out in Immediacy
At First its Simplicity…
At first its simplicity seems completely disarming, and nearly impossible to believe. Compared with all of the complexity and multilayered levels of contemporary psychology’s depiction of a person’s inner subconscious life and the thoughts that either threaten or compel us; Baruch’s is quite straightforward. Not only that but his understanding of human psychology far outstrips the modern one in accuracy and potential efficacy for traumatized minds.
Spinoza’s understanding of how each of our memories becomes captured and stored in the brain is simple. At the moment an event is experienced and simultaneously becomes ‘recorded’ in our ‘minds’, every aspect of that event becomes stored right along with it; every sight, smell, taste and sound which occurred at that moment collapses in together, as one ‘file’, so to speak.
This means that any one individual aspect in that concatenation; one whiff of smoke, one flash of colored light, one aroma of perfume, no matter at what point in any given ‘future’ time, will instantly recall to our mind’s eye the entire event as a whole and just as if it were happening now, alive in the moment. Except, of course, for the fact that it is no longer in the moment and may bring with it a flood of other memories, either formally or informally connected in some measure to that single event, causing a montage of distorted images to simultaneously appear and which may conspire to frighten us near to death.
This is how memory operates and what ‘causes’ it to form the backdrop of each and every of our dreams, our reminisces and our greatest fears. In sum, along with Baruch’s revolutionary discovery that memory contains no element of chronology; if and when it occurs, it is always in the now, and it never produces an isolated reminiscence, it comes as a flurry of blurred happenstance. Every single event becomes concatenated with any other that may even slightly resemble it in its details.
Memory is completely asynchronous. It has no past or future only an unrelenting present and presence. It has no beginning and will not end on its own, any finality to its control over our individual psyches, depends entirely on each of our own individual recognitions of its power over our lives.
In a word it is this faculty of memory and its associated timelessness and reoccurring potency, which lies at the heart of all psychological malaise. Whether the simple day or nightmare and all the way into the extremis, to the inescapable and mind destroying presence of neurosis and psychosis in peoples’ lives. What might an assessment and treatment regimen look like if it were developed from Spinoza’s “Ethics”?
First a repeatable and reproduceable normal psychological pattern and mental health profile would be sketched and ultimately drawn into a baseline or matrix of what can be termed a normal tracing or memoretic profile of normalcy.
This would resemble a montage of non-sequential events. Each fragment of which would be a readily discernable memory from past life. Only now in the dreamscape or reverie it would have become distorted and in the main would resemble taking a silly bus-ride through a harmless Fellini dreamscape. The ‘harmlessness’ in this scape refers only to participants in the exercise who are not, by definition, patients.
Critical to any success with this type of assessment the patient must play the lead role. Only the individual can accurately recall, capture and dissect the components of any individual reminiscence.
Together with this ‘mind-mapping’ exercise a metric would be developed for the individuals under observation for this baseline data. This metric would involve plotting onto an x, y, z set of axes, the three factors of time of occurrence, place and people involved, along with a third axis somehow capsulizing the content of the memory. Once the quantity of data can be resolved into a usable matrix, this process would shift into the first stage of a consultation with an actual patient.
Once the x-y-z diagram was plotted for the prospective patient and points of intersection and convergence are identified, the next step would ensue.
A scale would be mapped out to designate the level of self-doubt and image problems, if any, plus other psychological disturbances which could be associated with these ‘dream’ or memory sequents.
Most important in all of this measurement and analysis, a tutorial which would outline precisely how memory, with its timelessness and ‘ever’ presence before the minds-eye accounts for the majority of disquiet in our lives would be presented to the patient. This ‘briefing’ would provide the platform for analysis. From there, a regimen would be developed to make this ‘affect’ lessen its daily impact until it would completely dissipate over time.
From there, the originally developed normal tracing template would serve as a sounding board and ‘resonator’ which would then be compared on an ascending level of associated trauma to the memories and dreamscapes of someone afflicted with any given form of mental disturbance.
Once developed and replicated with the requisite number of individual mappings, this work will culminate in the production of a workable template for assessment and treatment. At the very least it might be deployed as a tool for teaching basic human psychology.
This grouping of dreamscapes garnered from volunteers’ memories together with a concomitant table of the emotional profiles which instigated and which will serve to transliterate them will inform a new approach to the interpretation of the meaning and causality of memories and imaginings and how these serve to place form and shape to mental disturbances.