On Playing Well with Others


Ask mathematicians about their experience of the craft, and most will talk about an intense feeling of intellectual camaraderie. “A very central part of any mathematician’s life is this sense of connection to other minds, alive today and going back to Pythagoras,” said Steven Strogatz, a professor of mathematics at Cornell University.  “We are having this conversation with each other going over the millennia.”


The quotation above is from a recent article in the NY Times Magazine about a brilliant mathematician, Dr. Terry Tao, at UCLA1.  I read the whole article with much interest, but this particular statement stood out and made me ponder about how good that connection with others, both currently and across time, must feel.  And I wondered why it is in psychology that we seem to ignore or apologize for our intellectual ancestors, and often complain about our contemporaries unless they are aligned with us in the narrowest of psychological views.


Mathematicians apparently can still appreciate the contributions of Pythagorus without damning him for not figuring out the whole thing, and physicists write books with titles like On the Shoulders of Giants. 2  Einstein has not been diminished because he did not believe quantum physics was based on sound theory (God does not play dice…) or that quantum entanglement was possible (spooky action at a distance…).3  Quantum physics is, of course, now accepted theory with practical applications in our lives and entanglement has been demonstrated.  Yet, we let ourselves be embarrassed by Freud or Jung or Adler or Rorschach without giving them their due.  What if we viewed ourselves as thinking  with them, and extending their work?


I was talking to a colleague – a professional who works with the business side of psychology – she observed that she has never seen a profession so divided, where everyone seems to be so critical of everyone else.  I have been thinking about that.  It seems to me that this occurs in pockets.  For example, some of the faculty in the graduate program I attended periodically expressed concern that if the students were exposed to too many different theoretical views of psychology they might get confused and lose their way. (Never mind that these students were from places like Princeton and Yale and UC-Berkeley and really could handle exposure to a variety of ideas.) To these faculty members it almost seemed like the work of Freud or Jung was dangerous to read – that somehow one couldn’t distinguish between what is still useful and what derived from the author’s personal or cultural situation and thus was never generally applicable or is no longer applicable.  And, they hated the term eclectic!


The clinicians I have known who call themselves eclectic seem to understand lots of theories and know that different people and different issues require different approaches.  A good eclectic therapist is grounded in a theory of human development or human psychology, but also is able to sort through a tool box of approaches that suit the client and the situation.   One mentor of mine looked at broad theoretical knowledge as a scaffolding made of supporting girders over which you ranged in the course of your therapeutic work.


Still, there is another side to this.  I do see that the stakes may be different for psychology and math.  If psychologists are wrong – decidedly wrong – we can do damage.  Or we think we can.  So we become fearful of people who practice in ways that differ from our own.  I likened this, in my conversation with the colleague mentioned above, to putting allopathic (western) doctors in the same room with acupuncturists, herbalists, homeopathic practitioners, osteopathic doctors, chiropractors, naturopathic doctors, and shamanic practitioners.  There would be, I think, the same kind of dismissive and fearful rhetoric that one finds between psychoanalysts, CBT psychologists, practitioners of transpersonal psychology or practitioners of energy psychology.


I am reminded of a physics professor at Wellesley College who would lecture sometimes in an introductory biology course.  She said she didn’t understand why people seemed to value the science involved in physics so much more than the science involved in biology – a, so-called softer science.  She said her job was easier than the biologist’s because she could literally look at one particle of matter at a time.  She had few variables to deal with.  While biology had zillions of variables and confounds in each experiment.  Much harder, she said.


Psychology will take you another step into the messiness of numerous variables and complex systems.  Perhaps each group and sub-group in our large and varied field needs to remember about the much fabled blind people exploring an elephant.  We are each interacting with a different part of a massive field, and need to coordinate with each other, value each other and integrate information from all sorts of approaches in order to get the full picture.

1  Gareth Cook.   Higher Power: The Singular Mathematical Mind of Terry Tao , New York Times Magazine, July 26, 2015, pp.44-49.

2 Stephen Hawking, (Ed.). (2002) On the Shoulders of Giants: Great Works of Physics and Astronomy.  Philadelphia: Running Press

3 It is hard to pin down a source for these two statements by Einstein, but they are widely attributed to him.  He objected to the then new field of quantum physics because he could not imagine a universe governed by probabilities and randomness in which linked events could happen without the mechanism of cause and effect.

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