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Why Buddha Isn't Dead-and Psychology Still Isn't Really a Science

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I've been mulling over how I should follow up my previous post, the one with the subtle headline "Crisis in Psychiatry!" My meta-theme is that science has failed to deliver a potent theory of and therapy for the human mind. I've made this same point previously, notably in my 1996 Scientific American article "Why Freud Isn't Dead" and my 1999 book The Undiscovered Mind, which was originally also titled "Why Freud Isn't Dead."

Best mind-scientist ever?

I was faulted for being too critical in those works, but in retrospect I probably wasn't critical enough. My "Freud isn't dead" argument went as follows: In spite of enduring vicious attacks since its inception, Freudian psychoanalysis endures as a theory of and therapy of the mind not because it has been scientifically validated. Far from it. Psychoanalysis is arguably analogous to phlogiston, the pseudo-stuff that alchemists once thought was the basis of combustion and other chemical phenomena.

Psychoanalysis endures because science has not produced an obviously superior paradigm to replace it. If psychoanalysis is phlogiston, so are all the supposedly new-and-improved mind-paradigms proposed over the past century, including behaviorism, cognitive science, behavioral genetics, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.

An effective mind-paradigm should produce effective treatments for mental illness, right? Countless new psychotherapies have emerged since Freud's heyday, but studies have shown that all "talking cures" are roughly as effective as each other, or ineffective. This is the notorious Dodo effect. (Those of you who believe, like my Scientific American colleague Ferris Jabr, that cognitive behavioral therapy represents a genuine advance in psychotherapy should check out this new study, which concludes otherwise.) Antidepressants, neuroleptics and other drugs can provide short-term relief for some sufferers from mental illness, but on balance they may do more harm than good.

Here's how bad things have gotten. Many prominent psychologists, such as Richard Davidson, are promoting meditation as a therapy for troubled minds, even though the evidence for meditation's benefits is flimsy. Think about that a moment. In spite of all the supposed advances of modern science, some authorities believe that the best treatment for mental disorders might be the method that Buddha taught 2,500 years ago. That's like chemists suddenly telling us that phlogiston theory—or something even older, like the ancient belief that all matter is made of earth, fire, air and water--was right after all.

I'm often accused of of being too negative, of seeing the glass of mind-science as half empty instead of half full. Actually, even describing the glass as half empty is far too generous. We don't have a genuine science of the mind yet. The question is when, if ever, will we?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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