What Can Academic Psychology Contribute to Psychotherapy?
Daniel S. Levine
Departments of Psychology and Mathematics
University of Texas at Arlington

There has always been a gulf between theory and practice. People who are involved in practical, real world problems often feel that the life of the mind is irrelevant to their concerns, and that academic researchers are in some kind of "ivory tower" detached from the man or woman in the street (whether in the barrio or the lakefront condo). Psychotherapists are no exception to this: what could an academic scholar have to say about helping people achieve emotional comfort or make vital decisions? But two generations ago the German social psychologist Kurt Lewin said, "There is nothing more practical than a good theory." In the case of psychotherapy, a good theory about how human beings really behave and what motivates us can have practical value in bring out the best in people. Now itís an exciting time for development of theories that have real potential to heal a lot of people. This is coming about through advances in several interacting fields, among them experimental psychology, neuroscience (the biology of the brain), computer science, and mathematics.

From this interdisciplinary work a new perspective is emerging on human nature. It goes beyond some of the grand psychological theories of the last hundred years and yet includes all of them. Freudian psychoanalysis, behaviorism, cognitive and gestalt theories, and humanistic "third force" psychology are all incomplete explanations of the human mind but all have provided valuable insights that scientists are now using.

A lot of knowledge, too, is accumulating about chemical neurotransmitters and psychoactive drugs and their effects on specific brain areas that are crucial for mental and emotional functioning. But this doesnít mean that ultimately we should try to abandon verbal techniques of therapy and replace them by drug treatment. Current knowledge in neuroscience tells us that many neural pathways in the brain change in their response with repeated stimulation of those pathways. This kind of change is essential for what the brain does: mediate between the rest of our bodies and the outside world. This means that all of our interactions have profound effects on our brains and their chemistry, and sometimes verbal techniques are the most effective ones to achieve the biochemical changes we want to make. And beyond the therapy of the clinic, a supportive atmosphere in schools, workplaces, and communities has a great deal to do with mental health. On the flip side, it seems doubtful that any drug can wipe out the harmful effects of abusive work and personal relationships.

The view of human nature that is current in academic psychology and neuroscience falls somewhat between the rational optimism of the Enlightenment and the cynical pessimism of Social Darwinists. Twenty years of experiments by the contemporary experimental psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (1) show that characteristic human decisions violate rational norms in some systematic ways. For instance, people making monetary choices tend to overreact to small probabilities of anticipated major gains or losses; this is why most states have lotteries and why life insurance companies are in business. Also, people making judgments tend to overemphasize those parts of a situation that are most eye-catching (to use the technical term, salient) rather than systematically examine all aspects. This explains why there is so much prejudice based on superficial factors like skin color, age, mannerisms, and professional jargon. But in spite of all this, most people are capable under the right circumstances of acts of great courage, love, and physical or intellectual skill. The insight of Abraham Maslow (2) that peak experiences, or transient periods of self-actualization, are nearly universal has stood the test of time.

Human minds are like all complex systems in that they can exhibit a wide range of behaviors. The currently popular mathematical theory of chaos (3), or more properly nonlinear dynamical systems (4), tells us that the same complex system can typically settle in more than one possible state, known as an attractor. For example, a piece of buttered bread thrown in the air has two attractors: falling on the buttered or the unbuttered side. An interaction between two people has (at least) the three attractors of love, hate, and indifference. A political system has (at least) the two attractors of dictatorship and democracy. Nonlinear dynamical system theory studies principles that are common to all these examples.

What does dynamical system theory say for psychotherapy? It says that the same person can move toward different "attractors" in different contexts and under different conditions. Even if a person is heading rapidly toward a self-destructive attractor, like drug addiction or an abusive (or even just dull) relationship, he or she can still be moved toward an attractor that will be more fulfilling. And the complexity of the brainís emotional and action systems, such as the limbic system, frontal lobes, and other areas (5), says that people are not always doing what they want to do. This may sound like an argument for human powerlessness. Instead, Sam Leven and I have said elsewhere (6) that this is an argument for human potential, because it says we can always transcend our present behavior. Therapists who ask a client "Why do you want to ruin your job, marriage, or whatever?" are unnecessarily insulting him or her and may be doing some harm. I believe it would be more productive to ask what the person is really trying to accomplish by his or her behavior and direct the client toward a more satisfying way of achieving his or her goal.

The dynamic nature of minds also means that we change over time, as Erik Erikson (7) noted in his work on the life cycle. It is fashionable in therapy to look at people in the "here and now," as they are outwardly behaving in the present therapeutic encounter. That is very useful but it isnít enough. Each of us is much more complex than what she or he is currently exhibiting: what you get is more than what you see. This means that if a client has made some growth in the past and appears to be going back to earlier, neurotic patterns, that doesnít mean the earlier growth has been wiped out. It may mean that the client is under stress (say, from a new job or move to a new city) and goes back to earlier patterns as a habitual coping mechanism. (I believe this happened to Bill Clinton in his first two years as President!) In such cases, the therapist can play a supportive role in reminding the client of his or her earlier growth and promoting a low-stress environment where that growth can be expressed.

The complexity of our mental life also tells us that sometimes people may engage in a behavior for reasons based on an entirely different behavior. As an example, suppose one became, as a single person, overly cautious in entering sexual relationships, which led to blocks against creativity in other areas of life. Then suppose one gets into a good marriage, and AIDS is epidemic. Caution in sex outside of marriage is now appropriate, for marital stability and health of the two partners. But on some brain level, the current appropriate behavior reinforces the earlier timidity which suppressed creativity. In this case, saying the person "wants" to stay timid is inappropriate because the clientís behavior seems justified by non-neurotic personal goals.

Insights from psychology, neuroscience, mathematics, and computer science are coming together in the growing field of neural networks (8). Neural networks are computer simulations of dynamical systems that are designed to mimic aspects of human behavior using structures that mimic parts of the brain. They are models that bear about the same relationship to the brain as a cartoon does to a photograph. With the increasing computer power available to them, more and more academic psychologists and neuroscientists are working together with, or becoming, neural network theorists. This promises to mean that psychotherapists of the near future will be able to draw on a sounder base of theory than was available to Freud, Erikson, Maslow or their contemporaries. More examples of where this approach can lead will appear in another issue.


(1) Kahneman, Daniel, Slovic, Paul, & Tversky, Amos (Eds.) (1982). Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. New York: Cambridge University Press.
(2) Maslow, Abraham H. (1968). Toward a Psychology of Being. New York: Van Nostrand.
(3) Gleick, James (1987). Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Viking.
(4) Abraham, Frederick D. (with Ralph H. Abraham and Christopher D. Shaw). A Visual Introduction to Dynamical Systems Theory for Psychology. Santa Cruz, CA: Aerial Press, 1992.
(5) Damasio, Antonio (1994). Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Grosset/Putnam.
(6) Levine, Daniel S., & Leven, Samuel J. (1995). Of mice and networks: connectionist dynamics of intention versus action. In Frederick D. Abraham and Albert Gilgen (Eds.), Chaos Theory in Psychology (pp. 205-219). Westport, CT: Greenwood.
(7) Erikson, Erik (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.
(8) Arbib, Michael A. (Ed.) (1995). The Handbook of Brain Theory and Neural Networks. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.