What explains the complexities and vagaries of the human mind? Is it the psychoanalysis of Freud or the self actualization theory of Maslow? That this is a fascinating subject is certainly illustrated by the abundance of “pop” psychology on TV – from the pontificating of Dr. Phil to the fractured families who expose themselves on “Jerry Springer” to the adoration of Oprah (who, to be fair, at least gives away a lot of her money to charity). Whatever happened to “I’m OK. You’re OK”?
A better way to explain real psychology may be to ask the professors who teach undergraduate classes in the subject at St. Thomas. Four of them – Dr. John Buri, Dr. Mary Anne Chalkley, Dr. Ann Johnson and Dr. Greg Robinson-Riegler – took the time to talk about their interests, stresses they see in students, the advice they give students and how spirituality may be related to psychology.
Buri’s particular specialization is marriage and family life and he has published three dozen journal articles and research reports on these topics. His marriage book for men, How To Love Your Wife , came out in November. Why this interest? “It may have been stated best by Stephen Covey,” Buri said. “I am convinced that if we as a society work diligently in every other area of life and neglect the family, it would be analogous to straightening deck chairs on the Titanic.” Buri is the father of six; Joe and Mark graduated from St. Thomas and James is a junior here.
“Psychology has become quite eclectic,” Buri noted. “There are a variety of different and often diverse areas in the field. Different individuals seem to be key in different areas of the discipline. One topic of increasing interest to students today is whether a happy marriage is possible. They seem to be especially jaded about the prospect of marriage.”
Students have changed
Buri, who has a Ph.D. from Loyola University (Chicago), joined the faculty in 1976 and has seen students change during those 30 years: “I am sometimes asked: ‘Do you see any differences between students today and those of 25 to 30 years ago?’
“One key difference jumps out at me: students today seem to be easily discouraged. They seem to take the path of least resistance when things become difficult. They look for external reasons rather than look at personal responsibility, and seem to lack hope for the future.”
In 2002, an article compared students from the 1960s with students of the early 2000s on a psychological construct called Internal/External Locus of Control. This measures the extent to which individuals view external circumstances (e.g., luck) as important to life successes (the External Locus of Control) versus viewing life success as something that is largely within our control (the Internal Locus of Control.)
The article reported that “Young Americans increasingly believe their lives are controlled by outside forces rather than their own efforts…. The average college student in 2002 had a more external locus of control than 80 percent of college students in the early 1960s…. The implications are almost uniformly negative, as externality is correlated to poor school achievement, helplessness, ineffective stress management, decreased self-control and depression.”
“This gives you a little window into a major emphasis for me in class,” Buri said. “Students who have had me for several classes have told me that there are a few concepts they can count on coming up in each class: (a) be reflective (the author of one study implied that ‘the typical American has all the reflectiveness of a rock’), (b) take responsibility for your behavior and your thoughts, and (c) lean into areas of discomfort in your life (DO those things that you find difficult but which are nonetheless good things to do),” Buri said.
Skeptical about one ‘grand theory’
Dr. Ann Johnson, who became chair of the department in 2003, finds it “interesting that there are no psychologists living today who hold the kind of status formerly held by the giants of psychology’s past: William James, Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Jean Piaget or Abraham Maslow. Part of the reason is, I think is that we’re much more skeptical now about the possibility of a ‘grand theory’ like Freud’s that can wrap everything up. The field has proliferated, diversified and with that growth we’ve seen that the human person is too complex to be wrapped up easily in any one theoretical approach.
“The new and most influential theories out there are biological and cognitive in emphasis. There’s tremendous interest in how the brain and nervous system shape how we experience the world. And new technologies give us information about the brain and its workings that we didn’t have before.”
Johnson, who has a Ph.D. from Duquesne University, has taught at St. Thomas since 1988 and is strongly interested in the history of psychology. “I teach a class on that topic and do research on early women psychologists. I find it fascinating to look at early days of psychology and see how it evolved.” She teaches classes such as Gender and Science (team taught with Dr. Jill Manske, Biology) and researches specifically the history of child psychology.
She recently collaborated on a book on the history of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, which studies “normal” child development, and is now looking at the contributions of Florence Goodenough, a prominent Minnesota child psychologist who developed the Draw-A-Man assessment measuring IQ in children.
“As a parent and psychologist I find it endlessly interesting to hear all the different beliefs that people hold about children and development,” Johnson, the mother of two teenagers, explained. “What’s fascinating about child psychology is how beliefs have changed over time and become institutionalized – in child-rearing techniques, in how we arrange educational environments for children and how we organize home life. Expert advice generated by child scientists has helped to shape our subjective views of childhood and our beliefs about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ developmental outcomes. My research also has a feminist angle, since so much that is written about child development carries implicit judgments about mothers – their shortcomings, their role in contributing scientifically to the study of children, and the impact of their everyday behavior on the child.”
Pursue a major that matters to you
Johnson added, “Students today face a lot of stresses that students of my generation didn’t. They seem to be under more financial stress; many are building up large loans in college and worry about how they’re going to repay them. Also, they have to learn to multitask in college and manage their own time – and for some students that can create huge anxieties.
“Many more students are arriving with diagnosed psychological problems – especially anxiety and depression difficulties,” she said. “I encourage students frequently to make use of our excellent personal counseling services on campus. It’s free and confidential and a great resource for our students.”
Students also carry a lot of stress about their majors and careers. “They believe they haveto have it all figured out by their junior year. I try to encourage them to think long term about a career journey, not a destination. My advice around career issues is to take it easy, listen to your inner voice and pursue a major that really matters to you. Be prepared to work hard and the jobs will come. And I often advise students to pursue a mentoring relationship with a professor he or she knows and likes.”
“My students sometimes kid me about putting on my ‘mom’ hat,” said Dr. Mary Anne Chalkley, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and has taught at St. Thomas since 1989. “I think many of our best students find themselves buried with all they are trying to do. I often encourage students to cut back on their jobs (especially ones off campus) if they possibly can. I also encourage them to slow down their pace.”
Chalkley, who teaches psychology of infants, childhood and adolescence, said that “in the classes I teach, I try to give students practical advice regarding being a parent. Perhaps the advice I give the most often is to let other people help when they offer. Raising children is a very labor-intensive job and parents should get as much help and support as they can.”
As a development psychologist, Chalkley is “interested in everything.” Her research projects include children’s puzzle solving and memory attention. “Frankly, I don’t think there is one answer in psychology,” she said. “I think we are finding out how much individual and cultural differences matter for functioning.
“I started focusing on young children because I had an interest in day care. But I found as I watched my own children grow that I was very curious about their lives and their development. I’m particularly interested in Head Start and families since I think it is a very important intervention program. Right now my primary focus is on learning and how it differs for children as compared to adults.
“I also am interested in parent-adolescent communication. One of the things that makes this more difficult is a lack of time together. Creating opportunities for regular interaction makes it more likely that there is a good rapport when more difficult issues arise. Some families focus on regular family dinners; others have ‘game’ nights. With my two kids, we had our best conversations while driving to various events,” Chalkley recalled.
The fascination of memory
For Dr. Greg Robinson-Riegler, the “fascination is in remembering: How our memory works, why it fails, and what a person’s life story means to him or her. I’m also interested in the mind and consciousness more generally and how they are viewed from different cultural perspectives.”
His specialties are “memory illusions, and memory and emotion. Research projects are cognitive processing of attractive and unattractive faces, false memories for different types of events, and individual differences in the ability to divide attention.”
Robinson-Riegler, who has taught at St. Thomas since 1990 and has a Ph.D. from Purdue University, has the “No. 1 piece of advice for students: Get yourself engaged somehow in the material you are studying. Even the driest class has ideas to get excited about and chew on.
“Apply the information you’re learning to life; think about its implications. Students in introductory psychology are fascinated by many topics but probably the most fascinating are sleep (they don’t get enough), memory (their studying is often ineffective), and psychopathology (many students are interested in becoming psychologists or counselors).”
The field is getting more complicated. “I would say cognitive neuroscience is at the cutting edge of the field,” Robinson-Riegler said. “Cognitive neuroscience involves finding out the connections among brain processes, thought and behaviors. Other cutting-edge areas of study are cross-cultural psychology – which looks at how one’s cultural background influences thought and behaviors – and evolutionary psychology, which looks at how human thoughts and behaviors might have evolved to ensure human survival.
“As for what has ensured human survival over the centuries, I would say it’s an evolved tendency to want to figure things out – to understand why and how things work.”
Spirituality is a hot topic
“Spirituality has become a hot topic in psychology,” Robinson-Riegler explained. “In my area, experimental psychology, researchers are trying to find out fundamental things about spiritual experiences – what they are like subjectively and what’s going on in the brain while we are having them. I’m co-teaching a course with Dr. Steve Laumakis in philosophy titled Buddha’s Brain in which we’re discussing views of mind, consciousness and meditation (i.e., one might say ‘spirituality’) from Western and Eastern perspectives.”
Buri noted that spirituality is a very broad term with a variety of interpretations. “There is a whole area of psychology termed ‘The Psychology of Religion.’ While a number of key figures in their field have been quite anti-religious (e.g., Freud, Skinner and Watson), most psychologists have traditionally been quite religious/spiritual. In the past 10 to 15 years, there is a growing openness to issues of spirituality, although one of the deterrents is that so much of this is not accessible to empirical observation.”
Johnson agrees that the tie-in of spirituality and psychology is a complex question. “It’s now possible for people to be trained as ‘spiritual guides’ or ‘counselors’, and that’s quite different from a psychotherapist.
What is the meaning of this?
“There are some experiences in life that call out for both spiritual and psychological assistance,” Johnson said. “Someone going through a crisis period, dealing with the death of a loved one, loss of a job or divorce often will seek out spiritual answers to the question: ‘What is the meaning of this for me?’
“Many find solace during difficult times in the spiritual writings coming out of their own religious traditions. But people in these situations might also benefit from more pragmatic psychotherapeutic interventions: learning how to use breathing exercises, for example, or cognitive restructuring to manage anxiety and depression.
“Spiritual counseling more often assists people in learning how to endure despair and find meaning in life,” Johnson noted, “while typical forms of psychotherapy are oriented toward problem solving – helping people find strategies that allow them to continue functioning day to day as a student or parent or employee.”