Category Archives: Psychology

Reviewing Peter Hobson’s The Cradle of Thought

Peter Hobson’s The Cradle of Thought is a philosophically and scientifically informed discussion of how thought develops in early life. Hobson’s main argument is that “interpersonal engagement contributes to the development of the mind – and [that] disordered interpersonal relations affect development of thinking” (p.143). He discusses many scientific studies which show how the level and nature of interpersonal relationships can impact the capacity for thought, suggesting deficient interpersonal relationships can lead to impoverished thinking.

Hobson highlights this through discussing individuals who are often not as capable of interpersonal interactions as most humans. He primarily discusses autism in detail, suggesting the usual thinking of autistic individuals (such as theory of mind differences) arise from lack of normal social and emotional interactions in early life. He heavily emphasizes that autism has a genetic component which results in biological differences (rejecting notions of poor mothering causing autism which some psychoanalysis used to believe) but argues the abnormal thinking itself is not primarily just due to biological difference. Rather, the biological differences result in difficultly interacting normally socially and emotionally, and this abnormal social and emotional experience results in abnormal thinking.

One might ask, why not just say the biological differences are responsible for both the abnormal interactions and for the abnormal thinking? Hobson uses a novel strategy to answer this question, primarily by looking at other types of individuals who also can face difficulties interacting normally. He considers individuals who are blind from birth and individuals who had very little social or emotional interaction in early life when raised in Romanian orphanges. These individuals often could not relate to other people in early life in the same way as most children. He then shows that these individuals sometimes develop some symptoms of autism, at substantially higher probabilities than would occur at random. Autistic individuals have biologically abnormal minds, blind individuals lack sight and Romanian orphans presumably have no major biological differences, yet all can exhibit some similar behaviour we associate with autism. Therefore, Hobson argues, some autistic behaviour is not directly the product of the biologically abnormal mind, but the biologically abnormal mind sets up abnormal interpersonal relationships and those interpersonal relationships result in symptoms associated with autism. Hobson also provides some evidence from how mothers with boarderline personality disorder interact with their children and how chimpanzees lack some parts of human socialising, suggesting both these cases can contribute to less than fully developed thinking.

Even though considered a developmental disorder, there is often a suggestion within scientific literature that the psychological development purely follow biological developments, rather than biological development resulting in psychological developments which then result in further psychological developments. I think a simple biological leading to psychological approach often present in modern science is far too simplistic, but I am unsure whether I think Hobson is correct or if I prefer a middle ground between Hobson and that modern science picture. Reguardless, the book is highly recommended for raising some important questions, presenting a solid evidence basis (often from very diverse sources which are not usually discussed in the context of autism) and for being highly accessible, being effectively popular philosophy and popular science.

Making psychology more textual but still statistical

I just read a couple of textbooks on anxiety. I was looking to see if anxiety was ever described as manifesting in a particular way and I found both textbooks to be largely unhelpful. They were severely lacking in qualitative descriptions of patients, very little on the experience of anxiety. Instead it is mainly statistical, describing statistical correlations between anxiety and gender, age, upbringing, other psychological traits etc.

I was particularly concerned by how anxiety was demarcated from other psychological states (depression, worry, fear etc) and different types of anxiety were demarcated (social, agoraphobia, phobia, PTSD, etc) without employing much qualitative descriptions by patients. Without such information are we really sure the boundaries between, say, anxiety and depression have been adequately drawn, similarly so with boundaries between different types of anxiety. Psychologists certainly have criteria, checklists and questionnaires to make such distinctions on but how much trust should we put in them? To be fair, both textbooks were aware of this problem but unfortunately seemingly suggested more studies using those same criteria would solve the problem, rather than trying think about and improve the criteria.

If we want to get clear about something then you might consider asking a philosopher to think about it, to analysis the concepts, to look for assumptions. All well and good. However, I also think this approach is severely limited, since philosophers have a tendency of making distinctions on obscure grounds little connected to everyday experience. Also, it is difficult to put diverse human experience like anxiety into necessary and sufficient without risking turning the concept of anxiety into some abstract notion far removed from human experience. In my experience, sometimes conceptual analysis of psychological states results in something largely unrecognisable. The psychologists ‘anxiety’ I can relate to, this will not always be the case with the philosopher’s ‘anxiety’.

There may be a middle ground. Conceptual analysis is important but can only go so far, at some point concepts should be opperationalised and need applying to the world. Philosphers should ideally give their concepts formalised criteria and then do statistical studies on them. Statistics hopefully should show the concept has some ‘fit’ with the world and the concepts can be modified in light of those statistics to get the fit better, to make it more relevant to patient reports. Unlike the psychologists though, make the opperationalised criteria rich and textual, highlight them with patient case studies, analyse those case studies conceptually to draw boundaries between concepts and draw inter-relations between concepts. More importantly, recognise these are only concepts and recognise that concepts rarely (perhaps never) fully mesh with the world, so employ many different concepts, formulate many different opperationalised criteria for statistical studies rather than continually employing the same old criteria. A psychology which willing drew different boundaries between anxiety and depression in different studies would have greater difficulty comparing results of different experiments but those results themselves would likely be so much more richer empirically, the statistics would reveal so much more.

I’m not sure how closely they can be merged or how exactly how it would be best done (major institutional changes would be ideal!) but the qualitative and the statistical can be brought closer together and this may require both psychologists and philosophers learning from one another.