The Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman once reflected on a discussion that occurred between himself and a friend (an artist). His friend held up a flower and said: ‘Look how beautiful this flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.’ Feynman noted that he could appreciate the surface level aesthetics of a flower-like anyone else. Yet he also said that: ‘I see much more in the flower than he sees. I can imagine the cells inside, which also have a beauty.’
Feynman contemplated how the shape and colour of the flower evolved over many years to attract pollinating insects. He could revel in the questions that arise from these careful observations. His knowledge of science added another dimension to the ‘mystery and awe of a flower’. It did not detract from it.
After reading Feynman’s anecdote I couldn’t help but wonder: does psychology and the scientific study of behaviour take away from the intrigue and excitement of life? The answer to this question is a rather personal one. Everyone has their own opinion, which usually falls into one of two categories.
Perhaps you think that psychology has set its aim too high, trying to explain behaviour – a subject which is too complex and intricate to be understood. Or maybe, you relate to Freyman’s artistic friend and the flower. You feel that analysing behaviour under the harsh glare of a microscope means that the magical intricacies of human nature are lost. I can understand this perspective. The science of behaviour requires researchers to be objective and predict behaviour. This could appear to be quite cold to an outsider. In my eyes, this is not the case. In fact, the opposite is true. The more I discover about behaviour, the more my interest and appreciation for psychology grows.
Science helps us to discover more about ourselves that we may never have known before. Psychology enriches our understanding of human nature and guides us to ways of overcoming or appreciating our very human flaws.
Did you know that just ‘viewing drug paraphernalia can activate the brain and make a cocaine addict feel pleasure or craving… [and] just thinking about something can have effects like actually experiencing it?‘ Now ask yourself, does knowing this make your daydreams about pizza any less enjoyable? Or do you feel any less nostalgic when viewing your vacation snaps on the fridge door? We cannot stop what we are wired to feel, even when armed with the logic behind it.
On a darker note, wives participated in a study. They were asked to view a signal that indicated their husbands were about to receive an electric shock. An fMRI brain scan demonstrated that the wives showed activation in regions linked to experiencing pain, such as the brainstem, and cerebellum. These participants completed questionnaires which indicated their general levels of empathy. Higher self-reported scores of empathy correlated with significant activations in these areas of the brain when the wives thought their partner was in discomfort.
Love can literally hurt us.
Now that you have been armed with this knowledge, will you be less likely to feel a stab of pain if your loved one is injured? Probably not. Knowledge does not remove us from experiencing emotions, both the good and the bad.
Question a child who is screaming with delight, their Papier-mâché volcano is erupting everywhere in a soapy explosion. Would they think that science experiments are boring?
I remember the surreal experience (and the dizzying whiff of formaldehyde) when I held a brain for the first time as an undergrad student. Knowing the name of the frontal lobe beforehand did not make this encounter any less fascinating. Science adds meaning and enjoyment to our lives through understanding.
Without psychology as a science, we might not know the value of parental talk on early childhood development.
In a classic study that spanned across two and a half years, Betty Hart and Toddy Risley visited the homes of 42 families, once each month. They recorded what the parent’s said to their children, who were age 7–12 months at the beginning of the study.
Once the data was collected, the researchers found that parents who were professionals spoke around 30 million words to their children. Working class parents voiced around 20 million words and parents who were receiving welfare only uttered 10 million words.
Higher quality and frequency of parent talking to their children was strongly related to their child’s language skills and IQ score at three years old. How much the parents conversed with their kids was an even stronger predictor of the children’s skill rather than their parent’s social class.
As beautiful as the natural bond is between parent and child, you cannot deny that scientific research has the power to enrich this relationship. Imagine the glory of seeing your child’s language progress rapidly, all because you have made the effort to talk to them more with a variety of new words! The science of behaviour helps us to learn more deeply and connect with those who matter most to us.
Claiming that science takes the ‘wonder’ out of behaviour is akin to saying we should not explore the world, for fear that the countries which we travel to will lose their mystique. If anything, the knowledge that you gain through travelling should increase your appreciation of the cultures that you experience.
There is one thing that I know is certain. For me at least, there are few subjects more interesting, challenging and captivating than the study of psychology. Understanding ourselves might be a complex process, but this does not detract from the joyful, meaningful and chaotic mess that is the human experience. Knowledge isn’t just power, it’s wonderment too.
Do you think that there is merit in the scientific study of behaviour? Or does it overcomplicate something which should be appreciated and uninterrupted? Join the debate in the comments section!
Wonderment: what psychology should feel like.
Beth Marie is the founder of Behaviour Babble.