Live and learn

uk_brains_stimIn an ongoing effort to regrow my brain, a daily habit is to spend an hour or so studying via a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). MOOCs are free courses offered by Universities and education organisations in all sorts of subjects, and the ones I have done have been excellent.

The most recent course I undertook, through the Open University’s Future Learn, was Psychology and Mental Health, run by the University of Liverpool and led by Peter Kinderman, Professor of Clinical Psychology.  The course explores and critiques the biopsychosocial model of mental health problems like depression and makes a case for ditching biological (nature) and social (nurture) explanations in favour of focussing on psychological processes – or, to use Kinderman’s phrase, “the sense we make of ourselves, other people, the world and the future”.

Kinderman and co. argue that it’s all very well ascribing human behaviour and emotions to ever more specific neuronal activity in the brain, but it doesn’t explain how you got to the point of, say, not being able to get out of bed, or what you can do to feel better. (Apart from taking antidepressants).

The academic bashing of the biopsychosocial model and its various advocates would perhaps be of most interest to people who have been treated for mental health problems by psychiatrists, with drugs – but this hasn’t been my experience.

I did this depression to myself then?

However, somewhat perturbed by the notion that my lifelong depression might be less to do with my genes and more to do with the sense I make of the world, I read Peter Kinderman’s The New Laws of Psychology: why nature and nurture alone can’t explain human behaviour 

kinderman new lawsThe main premise of the book is that:

“we are shaped by thought, and our thoughts are shaped by events….these biological, social and circumstantial factors affect our mental health through their effect on psychological processes”.

So our genetic inheritance and the stuff that happens to us are important to our mental health only in so far as they inform what we believe about ourselves and the world – ie the sense we make of everything.  Kinderman’s ‘new laws of psychology’ are:

Law 1

Our thoughts, emotions and behaviour (and, therefore, our mental health and well-being) are largely determined by how we make sense of the world.

Law 2

How we make sense of the world is largely determined by our experiences and upbringing.

These laws have profound implications for tackling depression, if Kinderman is right. We can try to change our brain chemistry with anti-depressant medication, and rationalise our thoughts with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques, but perhaps what we need to do is change our underlying beliefs about the world.  As Kinderman puts it:

Since people’s mental well-being is dependant (at least in large part) on their framework of understanding and their thoughts about themselves, other people, the world and the future, helping people think differently about these things can be helpful and should be the basis of therapy.  We should not be treating illness, but helping people think effectively and appropriately about the important things in life.

This has got me thinking about my own belief system – my own ‘sense of the world’. How did I arrive at it and can it be now be changed? Fascinating. To be continued…

the new laws of psychology

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