What has the ancient Greek demi-god Hercules got to do with the misapplication of the scientific method?
Writer Patrick Harpur, in his intriguing book Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld,1 suggests that all the Greek gods seem to reflect different aspects of the human psyche (Psyche was herself the Roman goddess of soul).
The immensely strong and arrogant Hercules, or Heracles, can be seen as representing the ego self, which takes, smashes, overpowers, and sees things that are symbolic as literal.
Hercules goes to the underworld, Hades, to conquer, whereas other heroes go with humility to learn or be initiated into the secrets of life. He treats ‘shades’ of phantoms of the underworld as literal, tries to kill what cannot be killed… and so on and so forth. What’s more, he’s driven mad by his own lopsided approach and ends up killing his wife and children during a time in which he has lost contact with his own essence.
Science and technology have given us untold luxuries and opportunities, but maybe Hercules was a warning in some sense.
Ego and soul
Harper’s take on the ego dominating at the expense of soul and spirit reminds me of Iain McGilchrist‘s description of the left brain hemisphere’s preferred take on things.2 It manipulates, grasps, takes, and sees reality as a series of resources to be mined. It sees what is figurative as literal. Actually, it mirrors Hercules almost perfectly.
Harpur further equates this rationalistic ego self, which seeks to manipulate and force itself on nature, as a warning of what can happen when the technological or scientific mind loses contact with higher and wider context. Although Harpur describes Hercules as “the archetypal background to technology”, muscling its way into and over everything, he is quick to emphasize that he isn’t crassly anti-science or anti-technology.
He points out, quite rightly, that a balance of wisdom and science is ideal. He highlights Daedalus, the Greek god of wisdom, knowledge, and power, who was a skilled craftsman and inventor. A god who brought good to the world. Mind you, Icarus, the son of Daedalus, famously and hubristically flew too close to the Sun, melted the wax of his artificial wings, and perished. So this need for balance has, it seems, long been understood.
But what of our current world?
The danger of viewing everything exclusively through a scientific lens, rather than looking at things in the spirit of truth – what we might call ‘wise science’ – is that it splinters reality excessively. It loses the bigger picture. This approach, sometimes called ‘scientism‘, is a blind, almost religious faith that science is the only way of approaching reality and is completely infallible. But the reality is, this is a severely limited way of thinking.
A boy takes a living fly wishing to understand its workings, but upon dissecting it finds he has the parts but nothing more. The parts can’t work independently of the whole. Life is gone from the fly. Dissecting everything down into splinters is no way to reach true understanding.
We become wiser when we understand not just the parts but also the living, wider patterns of reality.
Closer to wisdom
We’re bombarded by thin-sliced pieces of psychological research, but just consuming new bits of information is not enough. We have to do our own thinking. We have to continually ask ourselves:
How does this fit into what it means to be human?
In this occasional series I take five pieces of recent psychological research, describe them, and then offer my own take as to where these findings may fit into the wider human condition.
Mere information is easily discarded. Knowledge can be used, and becomes part of us.
The demigod Hercules had skills, courage, and of course almighty strength – but we can see him as a warning of lopsided scientism in which wider perspectives may be missed.
So, I hear you cry, what have you got for me this time?
This month’s gems
This time we’ve got:
- research showing people can have psychedelic experience purely through placebo,
- how having an upbeat partner helps our health,
- why money can’t buy you love (or friendship),
- how feeling loved in little ways every day helps your wellbeing, and
- evidence that hypnosis can help reduce fear of cancer treatment in children.
So, without further ado…
Research piece one: People can have a psychedelic ‘trip’ on placebo
The placebo response is extraordinarily potent. Intrigued by recent interest in the potential use of psychedelic drugs to treat depression,3 researchers at McGill University looked at what would happen if people took a placebo that they believed to be hallucinogenic.4
The participants believed they were taking part in a study on the effects of drugs on creativity. They were given a placebo, but were told that they were taking a drug resembling psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and that they would experience altered consciousness.
They spent the following four hours together at a ‘psychedelic party’, in a room complete with paintings, coloured lights, and even a DJ! Scattered among the subjects were several actors who, as the study proceeded, slowly acted out the effects of the ‘drug’. To make the situation even more credible, the researchers also planted psychiatrists, a security guard, and 10 research assistants in white lab coats!
So what happened?
Moving paintings and drug comedowns
Remarkably, more than half (61%) of the research participants reported experiencing psychedelic effects after taking the placebo. Several reported seeing the paintings on the walls “move” or “reshape”. Some reported feeling heavier, as though gravity had altered. One even described having a “comedown” before a second “wave” hit. A small proportion remained convinced they’d taken genuine psychedelics even after being told they’d consumed a placebo.
Placebo engenders expectation, which we know can work to alter mind/body processes. For instance, we can feel better just knowing a doctor has arrived to attend to us, even before they administer any help.
What proportion of the effect of anything we experience has to do with expectation?
Perfectly sober people can have distorted ‘drunken’ memories when they mistakenly believe they’ve consumed alcohol.5 People with Parkinson’s Disease can experience a genuine increase in available dopamine in their brains after taking a placebo medication.6 Expectation shapes experience on so many levels.
This study is particularly interesting because it highlights not just the power of placebo, but also how the environment acts as a primer for expectation and therefore experience. Samuel Veissière, a study supervisor and cognitive anthropologist at McGill’s Department of Psychiatry, said:
“Our study helps shed light on the ‘placebo boosting’ component inherent in all medical and therapeutic intervention, and the social influences that modulate these enhancing effects.”
I think there’s an important takeaway here for us as practitioners.
Any ritualistic element to a situation shapes our expectations, conscious or otherwise. Your manner as a practitioner, the environment in which you see clients, what you say, your tone of voice, and many other factors come together to create expectations within your clients, even before you get down to therapy.
So to best help our clients, we practitioners need to be able to hone their expectations.
And speaking of a happier future, how is it that having a happier partner may make your future healthier, too?
Research piece two: A happy partner leads to a healthier future
Being optimistic isn’t just good for you, it shapes your spouse’s health too – apparently to quite an astonishing degree. Research conducted at Michigan State University found that optimism was associated with significantly better cognitive functioning not just for the optimist, but for their spouse as well.7
The study, published in the Journal of Personality, drew this conclusion after following almost 4,500 heterosexual couples for up to eight years. The authors propose that this link between spouse optimism and cognitive health is thanks to a healthier and more supportive home environment with reduced risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and cognitive decline.
One of the researchers, Assistant Professor of Psychology William Chopik, said:
“We spend a lot of time with our partners. They might encourage us to exercise, eat healthier or remind us to take our medicine. When your partner is optimistic and healthy, it can translate to similar outcomes in your own life. You actually do experience a rosier future by living longer and staving off cognitive illnesses.”
This is interesting… but I suspect there may be something else going on here, too.
Outside of the potential effects on health and lifestyle, there seems to be an intrinsic protective element to being with an upbeat person.8 Some of this may have to do with ‘mood transmission’, which is certainly known to happen in groups.9
Depression is much worse than a bad mood. It colours how the sufferer perceives the world, themselves, the future, and the past. It can take an immense toll on relationships, not to mention the detriment to physical health.10
Not surprisingly, it has been found that living with a depressed partner can make us more depressed and anxious ourselves. Living with a chronically depressed person over many years can have a huge impact on your mental health.11 And given what we know about the mind-body connection, I think it’s reasonable to assume it would impact your physical health, too.
Conversely, and as the authors of the study suggest, living with an optimistic person who is proactive and happy can help you engage in healthier behaviours yourself, and be at least a bit happier than you might otherwise be. And being happy certainly appears to have a positive effect on our physical health. Amazingly, one study found that the magnitude of this effect is comparable to that of smoking or not!12
Being with someone who isn’t prone to depression or low moods may help us resist them too, with a corresponding lift in our own cognitive, physical, and mental health through the years.
Mind you, if one partner is prone to optimism and the other prone to depression I wonder whether there might be a cancelling-out effect. Or perhaps it’s the partner with the more dominant personality who ‘leads’ the emotional atmosphere of the relationship.
Positivity, resilience, and an upbeat attitude are powerful traits that may lead, or at least impact, the moods of those we live with. In turn, these traits may make the optimistic person less likely to be affected by lower moods their partner may have.
I would imagine being with a highly optimistic person may make someone who has lower moods sometimes feel a little misunderstood – but according to this research, it appears that the positives of being with a positive person positively outweigh that possibility!
The next research piece is based, it seems, on a Beatles classic.
Research piece three: Money can’t buy you love
There’s truth behind the cliché that money can’t buy you love (or happiness, or even friendship). We know that while a certain amount of money makes you happier, beyond that point more money doesn’t make you significantly more happy.13 Marrying into money may not be the best idea, especially if the person you marry is driven by wealth.
Research has repeatedly shown that individuals who are focused on financial success often spend less time on their relationships and are reluctant to turn to others for help,14 but it’s only more recently that the reasons why are beginning to be unpacked in more detail.
The authors of a new research study entitled Can’t Buy Me Love (or Friendship): Social Consequences of Financially Contingent Self-Worth propose that when we base our self-worth on financial success, we are likely to put pressure on ourselves to achieve it – and that means less time and effort available for relationships.15
The research, conducted at The University of Buffalo, assessed over 2,500 people across 5 different studies that examined the relationship between “financially contingent self-worth” and time spent with others, social disconnection, and loneliness. It was found that a sense of identity based mainly on how much cash and other financial resources we have can damage our relationships and drive love and friendship away.
Deborah Ward, lead researcher and adjunct faculty member at the University of Buffalo’s Psychology Department, said:
“Feeling that pressure to achieve financial goals means we’re putting ourselves to work at the cost of spending time with loved ones, and it’s that lack of time spent with people close to us that’s associated with feeling lonely and disconnected.”
I think having a goal of acquiring some wealth is fine… but with some important caveats.
I’m no Biblical scholar, but I’ve noticed people often misquote the phrase ‘The love of money is the root of all evil’ as simply ‘Money is the root of all evil.’ Yet many people feel that having no money is actually the root of said evil, or at least many problems and anxieties.
But it seems that it’s not having money or being rich in and of itself that damages relationships. Rather, it’s the extent to which we obsess about material wealth. People come to only be ‘worth’ knowing if they can be a good business contact or have money and influence.
Our goals should encompass not just material gain but also all our, and our loved ones’, emotional needs. If we don’t aim right in life we may feel strangely disappointed and empty when we finally get what we believed we wanted.
Relationships are intrinsic to wellbeing, happiness, and meaning.16 The danger of being totally focused on money is that you see everything through that lens of material acquisition. Is there any money in spending time with an old friend? Is there any cash advantage in dating or meeting up with relatives? Does watching a majestic sunset add to the bottom line? These may not be conscious thoughts, but they can nevertheless come to underlie our approach to life at an unconscious level.
Of course, if we don’t have enough money then we will naturally be somewhat preoccupied with having enough money to feel secure and comfortable. We all tend to focus on what we need when we’re struggling to secure basic resources. But basing your entire identity on money is not the royal road to happiness it’s sometimes made out to be. In fact, it’s quite the reverse.
If you are a practitioner, ask yourself: How much do your unhappy clients focus on the acquisition of wealth over the nurturing of relationships? How much do you do this? I would distinguish this from merely needing enough money.
Many super-rich people also, I think, begin to suspect their ‘friends’ may be fair-weather ones. Riches may attract fake echoes of love and friendship in place of the real thing. But what kind of basis is wealth for genuine love or friendship?
So what does bring happiness? Again, the answer seems obvious.
Research piece four: Feeling loved in everyday life is linked to wellbeing
‘Feel the love’ is great advice (as long as it’s there to feel!).
Researchers at Penn State Institute for Computational and Data Sciences found that experiences of ‘felt love’ in everyday life corresponded to significantly higher levels of psychological wellbeing.17 People who regularly felt loved were also more optimistic and had a greater sense of purpose than people with lower ‘felt love’ scores.
The researchers also conducted personality tests on all participants, and found that those who felt more love tended to score higher on extraversion, while those who felt lower love from others tended to be more prone to neuroticism.
But what did the researchers actually classify as ‘felt love’?
Lead author and Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University Zita Oravecz said:
“We took a very broad approach when we looked at love. Everyday felt love is conceptually much broader than romantic love. It’s those micro-moments in your life when you experience resonance with someone. For example, if you’re talking to a neighbor and they express concern for your well-being, then you might resonate with that and experience it as a feeling of love, and that might improve your well-being.”
So we don’t need to feel absolutely adored to benefit from social connectedness.
Giving and receiving high-quality attention is the basis of human society. Feeling ignored, unappreciated, or brushed aside tends to produce unhappiness so, conversely, feeling cared about or even noticed every day can have major benefits for us. A dim everyday echo of this might be receiving a ‘like’ on social media. It might do something for us, but ultimately it contains so little nourishment we may feel compelled to try to get more and more – at the expense of actually getting out there and seeing people.
The researchers linked feeling loved with having an extraverted personality and not feeling loved with being more neurotic. I’m not altogether surprised by these findings. I do think not feeling loved could make a person more neurotic over the long term. And, conversely, feeling loved may make us more confident and extraverted. Personality factors are mutable in response to experience, at least to an extent.
Then again, there may also be an effect in the opposite direction. People more prone to neuroticism, more able to easily feel negative emotion, may downplay or disregard positive displays of love and affection from others, while those who are more naturally outgoing may more easily notice and acknowledge love from others.
Among other things, this is what gratitude training teaches us to do: to get better at noticing love and therefore letting it help us toward greater wellbeing. And this is something we could all benefit from.
According to the researchers, the overall baseline of the subjects’ ‘felt love’ experiences rose over the duration of the study, suggesting that the nudges to recognize examples of love and connection may have gradually increased the subjects’ overall sense of being loved. And as we already saw, stronger experiences of felt love are, in turn, associated with improvements in psychological wellbeing.
Of course, feeling love is vital for children, and so too is feeling calm and comfortable during tough times.
Research piece five: Hypnosis could help reduce fear of cancer treatment in children
A cancer diagnosis is, of course, extremely frightening for a child and for their family.
Previous research has found that hypnosis can help children alleviate and manage both anxiety and physical pain while undergoing invasive physical procedures.18
Now a team of researchers, working with the Devon Integrated Children’s Service, has performed a systematic review and meta-analysis of all the evidence on non-pharmacological methods of reducing anxiety in children undergoing cancer treatment.
This research, conducted at the University of Exeter in the UK, confirmed that hypnosis for children can reduce fear and and anxiety around injections and other procedures, such as bone marrow extraction.19
This is a very important finding, as for many children the pain associated with cancer treatment procedures is actually more stressful than the cancer itself.20 This anxiety causes further distress for both the child and their family, and may be detrimental to mental health in the long term.
Co-author Tamsin Ford, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Exeter, said:
“Hypnosis is inexpensive to deliver, and our research found promise that it could help to reduce the fear and anxiety of multiple needle procedures. We now need high-quality trials to demonstrate whether hypnosis should be adopted in clinics.”
I think you can guess my take on this!
Hypnosis has long been used to ameliorate fears of all kinds, including dental anxiety,21 preoperative anxiety,22 and even anxiety in victims of rape (although this study only involved three women).23
What’s more, children seem to be even more receptive to the benefits of hypnosis. This is, I think, in part perhaps because they’re naturally more attuned and open to learning (we learn through focused states like hypnosis) and in part because children tend to be more in touch with their imaginations, and the activation of imagination is an important aspect of hypnosis.
When we help children psychologically, we also show them that they have a wealth of inner resourcefulness. It’s a lesson they may carry with them forever:
“I can do things I didn’t know I could do! I can overcome what I thought I couldn’t.”When we help children psychologically, we also show them that they have a wealth of inner resourcefulness. It's a lesson they may carry with them forever: I can do things I didn't know I could do! I can overcome what I thought I couldn't.Click To Tweet
What a wonderful gift!
We’re all emotional, thinking, behavioural, and hypnotic beings, and a truly wise approach will always take this into account – what it is to be human, and also what it is to be a child feeling like you’re facing the abyss.
How to Lift Depression Fast
Mark takes a particular approach to treating depression that you can learn online. Read about his depression treatment course here.
- Harpur, P. (2003). Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld. Pine Winds Press, p. 259.
- McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. Yale University Press.
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