I just finished a fascinating small book by Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (that’s him on the right), called Acts of Meaning. Although it was published in 1990, I don’t think it’s widely known among lay-people, and I think its ideas are worth briefly discussing – because they offer an interesting critique of cognitive science, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and a call for it to become more culturally aware.
Let me say at the outset that CBT helped me enormously and that what follows is not a rejection of CBT but an exploration of how it could be expanded to include more from the arts and humanities.
Bruner was one of the pioneers of the cognitive revolution, which transformed psychology from the 1950s on. The cognitive revolution was a rebellion against behaviourism, which claimed (to generalise) that all human behaviour could be described by a very simple process: Stimulus – Response. There was no need, behaviourists said, to inquire into human thoughts or beliefs or values. We simply respond to external stimuli, and change our automatic responses accordingly, like automatons, or rats in a laboratory.
The psychologists of the cognitive revolution rebelled against this view of human psychology, and insisted that humans’ internal thoughts and values play a powerful role in defining how we experience reality, how we feel about it, and how we respond to it. Between the Stimulus and Response lies a person’s beliefs and values – and we can change our beliefs and become the ‘authors of ourselves’. This, of course, is a very different view of humanity. We go from being helpless automatons passively reacting to stimuli, to autonomous beings, actively creating meaning from our experience, able to choose how we respond to life’s challenges.
Part of the cognitive revolution is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which was invented by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck in the 1950s. Both Ellis and Beck were inspired by their reading of ancient Greek philosophy, particularly of the Stoics, who insisted that humans create their experience of the world through their beliefs. As the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Life itself is but what you deem it.”
The Stoics were the vanguard of the cognitive revolution, 2000 years before it happened. Humans, they suggested, were “disturbed not by events, but by their opinions about them”, as Epictetus wrote. Therefore, to heal yourself of emotional disorders, you should simply become aware of your beliefs, see how they cause your emotions, and then change your beliefs if you decide they are false and irrational. Eventually, the Stoics believe, we will be able to perfectly match our beliefs to external reality (or God), and nothing that ever happens will ever upset us. The therapeutic process is, the Stoics believe, entirely individual. We can’t expect society to change its foolish ways. Rather, the lone Stoic heroically separates themselves from their toxic culture, and makes of themselves a perfect little fortress of calm rationality amid the irrationality of their society.
CBT might not believe in God, but apart from that, this is pretty much a description of CBT’s therapeutic approach. We must rationally examine our beliefs, and reject any that are false, until we become perfectly adapted to reality and nothing truly upsets us anymore. As in Stoicism, this recovery process is entirely individual.
Clearly the Stoics got something right – our emotions dofollow our beliefs, and if we change our beliefs we change our emotions. Realising this helped me personally to overcome depression. But perhaps both CBT and Stoicism are too individualist, and ignore the importance of culture both in emotional disturbances and in the recovery process. Other Greek philosophical schools, like Plato and Aristotle, agreed with the Stoics that our emotions are caused by our beliefs. But they had a much keener sense of how our beliefs are shaped by our culture and political system. So the process of recovery is not just individual – it is also cultural and political.