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What is psychology?

It is amazing to see the kind of interest psychology generates. For many of us, at the first glance, psychology does seem like an interesting and simple subject to master. But very soon, we realize it is not so. And, the more we read about psychology, the more we will relate to the many theories and the more we understand about ourselves.

Look at it this way.

A biologist uses a microscope to see things that are out of the bounds of the normal human eye. An engineer builds, designs, and manipulates things that are outside him. A doctor helps others maintain good health. They learn and understand their subject by operating on things outside of them. It might be plants, animals, humans, things, so on. But for psychologists and psychiatrists, they are their own subjects.  They grow every day just by understanding themselves and their thought processes which helps them reach out to others easily.  They have to see through themselves first.

Now, the reason why I’m talking about general psychology here is that I believe there are a lot of misconceptions about the subject. I’ve seen that people rarely talk about psychology in real life. But they do want to know a lot of psychology-related stuff and generally Google them up for answers. I hope to answer some of the most basic questions and queries relating to the field. In the process, I hope to make it more accessible and clear to you; and also show you why it’s one of the most important fields of study.

No subject-specific jargons, I promise! Let’s begin by understanding the basics.

What is psychology?

Understanding definitions and imbibing those words in their truest sense are two different things, right? The widely accepted definition is this. Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind and behavior. Sounds, simple right? The basic premise of psychology is to understand our drives and urges and how it manifests as different behaviors. Imagine a human as a thing that receives an input and gives an output. But is it that simple?

How are we different from, say a computer program or a robot? Here’s a rough sketch I drew when my lecturer tried to teach me this concept.

Psychology flowchart

So, psychology can also be defined as the study of these external factors. Here’s where things get interesting. To understand why we react in different ways to the same input, we need to understand the most important concept in psychology — that human mind doesn’t function in terms of binaries; black or white; yes or no; or good or bad. The brain — that powers everything — is still an enigma. We’ll get into the functioning of brain a bit later. But at this point, it is only necessary to understand that psychology is the study of ourselves, what powers us to do certain things and what role of these external factors play.

Is psychology a science?

I had italicized the word ‘scientific’ in the formal definition for a purpose. Psychology employs methods that are widely accepted as being scientific. But there are a few who believe that the field can never be scientific. To understand the debate better, we need to understand the concept of science. And, when do we call something as being ‘scientific’.

Repeatability and reproducibility are two important concepts in science.

I’ll use an example of a physics experiment. To conduct an experiment successfully, we need to control the external variables or take them into account while calculating our results. External variables are those forces that threaten to derail or dilute the intended result of an experiment. That’s why we use sound-proof rooms; temperature and humidity controllers, etc. They can affect the results. When we remove these elements and end up with a result, we can, to a large extent, call it universal because we’ve tested them in a change-proof environment.

So, if the same conditions are available, say in your terrace, and armed with our knowledge about the external elements and how to control them, we can arrive at the same result. Then it becomes a scientific study. We’ve been able to zero in on every possible ‘pollutant’, remove them and conduct an experiment that can be repeated and reproduced.

Now, recall my sketch.

Try to apply a similar kind of experiment based on the human mind. This is where we head into problems. Imagine an experiment where you need to study the brain or cognitive developments of three-year-olds. To generalize the findings, we need sufficient a sufficient sample. Now, let’s assume we have the necessary sample strength to test for every possible outcome and situation. What about the other external factors, like the effect of their psyche, on the outcome of the experiment? Or, the immediate past that is bound to affect their performance in the experiment?

After a point we realize that we cannot possibly make many psychological experiments repeatable and reproducible. Don’t get me wrong here. Our technologies have grown enormously to remove these external elements. Psychology definitely endeavors to be a scientific study. And, the ‘can psychology be a scientific study’ debate has been raging for many years. I’ve explained the debate in simple terms here, to help you understand the larger picture. There are nuances and finer details that we haven’t touched upon. We’ll address them some time later.

Now, to the next most-asked question.

Are psychology degrees useful?

Like all things, it depends on how you define your need.  How do you define ‘useful’? But, I must say in which ever way you define it, my answer is an emphatic YES.

I’ll tell you why.

Getting a job based on your psychology degree is dependent on many factors. A master’s or a doctorate in psychology is definitely the way to go, if you’re planning to tread the path of psychology. Psychology requires deep introspection, a mind that is trained to be unbiased, a vision that has no filters. For an average person, it would mean that they have have to unlearn and relearn everything about themselves. That is a painful but rewarding experience in itself.

I want you to see them as an investment. An investment that will reward you wherever you work or go. I mean, understanding oneself is the first step to greatness. It reminds me of a quote by Lao Tzu, the father of Zen Buddhism:

Lao Tzu quote

And, psychology can help you do all four!

Here’s another popular question.

What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

I’ve been asked this question so many times that I thought I should write about it. To become a psychiatrist, one has to have a medical degree. A psychiatrist can prescribe medicines while a psychologist cannot. Having said that, a psychologist can always refer a patient to a psychiatrist, if he/she believes that a medical intervention is necessary.

Their education and type of practice are the main difference.

A psychiatrist generally treats mental issues from standpoint of chemical intervention (not always, though). A psychologist is more concerned about counselling and psychotherapy.

What are the different branches of psychology?

Before we get into the different branches, it will be wise to remember that all of them converge at the same or a similar point. They act as different paths to the same destination, which is the understanding of human mind and behavior.

And, I want to only give you a brief idea about each of them. It is just to give you an idea on how each school differs in its thought process.

Behaviorism

This school of thought believes that we are a product of our environment and our actions are dictated by it. It simply says that our behaviors are a product of external forces.  This school only depends on observable behavior. And, it doesn’t take into consideration the internal factors, like cognitive development and psyche.

This school of psychology considers the concept of free will an illusion. 

Humanistic psychology

This school of thought came about much later and, in many ways, is exactly opposite to the behaviorist school. Humanistic psychology believes that internal factors, like need for personal growth, self-actualization, are the driving forces behind our actions.

Cognitive psychology

Cognitive psychologists study the brain and its functions. They try to understand the mental processes, including how people sense, perceive and react. Cognitive psychology believes in understanding the brain and how it plays a role in our behaviors. It overlaps with Neuroscience on many levels.

Psychoanalysis

It is among the more popular fields of psychology, thanks to its founder, Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis believes that our actions are largely driven by the unconscious. This school sees the human mind as an iceberg. The ice visible on top is the conscious mind and the ice below the sea, which forms its base and is considerably bigger, is believed to be like the unconscious.

The idea is to convey that  the unconscious is not apparent or visible but plays a big role in our actions. Here’s a detailed article I had written earlier this year on the relevance of psychoanalysis today.

Gestalt psychology

According to Gestalt psychology, our minds form a percept or a template for everything we see. It studies how we perceive the things around us and form our global perception. In short, it says we create a world inside our heads based on how we perceive things around us.

Structuralism and Functionalism

Structuralism tries down to break down every mental into it smallest form. It is one of the oldest schools of thought. Functionalism focuses on the role mental processes play. It came about as a reaction to structuralism. It focused on the purpose as opposed to Structuralism which focused on identifying the basic elements of consciousness.

As you can see, almost all of these schools have the same end point — to dissect our behavior and attach meanings to them. It doesn’t matter which school you believe as long as you’re goal is to understand the human mind.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about cyberpsychology too. In the last few years, cyberpsychology has quickly established its position and interest among academics.

And, a lot of people have asked me about it too. So here it is.

What is cyberpsychology?

Cyberpsychology is a relatively new field of study. It aims to understand how humans interact with emerging technologies, such as the Internet, virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

We are finding new things about us everyday, thanks to the disruptive nature of the medium. It has leveled the playing field for all. The internet doesn’t judge who’s big or small; rich or poor; good or bad. It is tool — one that amplify our abilities. It has made everything instant, fast and accessible. And, we’re still finding a way around it and in the process, understanding another facet of ourselves.

Self photographs were once considered a sign of narcissism but it is commonplace now. Trolling has shown us what we’re capable of. Cyberbullying is rampant. We are are getting instant feedback on our photos, thoughts. Everyone knows where we eat and party. Everyone knows our family; our pets.

Or in the words of cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken:

By the time we get to 2020, when we are alone and immersed in our smart homes and smarter cars, clad in our wearable technologies, our babies in captivity seats with iPads thrust in their visual field, our kids all wearing face-obscuring helmets, when our sense of self has fractured into a dozen different social-network platforms, when sex is something that requires logging in and a password, when we are competing for our lives with robots for jobs, and dark thoughts and forces have pervaded, syndicated, and colonized cyberspace, we might wish we’d paid more attention. As we set out on this journey, into the first quarter of the twenty-first century, what do we have now that we can’t afford to lose?

Sounds scary, right?

We are still try to learn about the human mind and the advent of such technologies has helped quicken the process. Or, should I say, given us a different kind of peek into our brains? For example, this article on cyberchondria gives us a new perspective on the human mind. It shows us how the phenomenon of hypochondria, or anxiety due to excessive worrying about health, manifests in the virtual world.

And, there is much more to this field. I hope to cover them all and in manner that everyone can relate to. I’m sure I must have missed a few questions here. Fee free to post them as a comment below. Also, do give me your feedback or write in your experience about learning psychology. Let’s learn together!

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