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The ancient roots of psychotherapy matter now
Cognitive behavioral therapy has the Stoics to thank for inspiring this field.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy, a 20th century invention, points to Greek Stoicism for inspiration.
- Stoicism and CBT share an emphasis on using logic and reasoning to overcome emotional difficulties.
- Knowing how to respond to challenges lies at the foundation of modern psychotherapeutic practices.
Where do thoughts come from? Though we've advanced our understanding of the physiological actions that lead to thinking, "where" they arise from remains uncertain. Freud believed thoughts operate at the level of the unconscious; modern psychology and neuroscience abandoned that idea decades ago. Experiences leave imprints—memories—that serve as blueprints for thought.
The developments of behavior therapy and cognitive therapy in the first half of the twentieth century laid the foundation for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of mental health training that aims to disrupt cognitive distortions and behaviors and help regulate emotions. Initially applied to depression, this treatment now includes many other problems, including depression's sometime-kin, anxiety.
While CBT's roots can be traced to various therapists in the nineteen-twenties through the sixties, an emergence of "third wave" CBT kicked off in the eighties. This trend coincided with CBT being used as a catchall to describe a number of modalities, including dialectical behavior therapy, rational emotive therapy, and cognitive processing therapy. Today, CBT generally implies any treatment aimed at improving cognitive and emotional issues.
While a twentieth-century intervention, CBT was presaged in the philosophical school of Stoicism. CBT espouses a rational approach to psychosomatic and emotional malaise, making us recall the words of Socrates and Epicurus, both of whom believed philosophy is therapeutic. In fact, the latter, in Fragments, writes that "the philosopher's school is a doctor's clinic."
Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium in the third century BCE. The philosophical foundation sounds Buddhist: don't allow pleasure or pain to motivate your actions; accept each moment as it is; live a virtuous life by treating others fairly; live in accordance with nature. Also of note in this media-dominated age in which loud, unapologetic hypocrites hold office: judge a person by their actions, not their speech. Then you will know who they really are.
Zeno said that in order to flourish (eudaemonia), you must exhibit the will (prohairesis) to not be seduced by sparkly objects or the fear of death. This is accomplished through the acquisition of knowledge combined with an ability to implement the ethical framework that such knowledge demands. Stoicism flourished until Christianity dominated the region in the fourth century CE, though many have argued that CBT represents its modern incarnation.
Donald J Robertson and Trent Codd recently co-author a deep dive on the history of the relationship between Stoicism and CBT in the journal, The Behavior Therapist. The best modern example of Stoicism, they write, can be traced back to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's 1934 prayer:
"God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference."
The authors credit psychologist Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), for inspiring the modern renaissance in Stoicism as well as pointing out its applicability in psychotherapy. Ellis believed that emotional problems are not caused by external events, but rather "our irrational beliefs about such events." This idea was borrowed straight from the pen of Epictetus, the first century CE Stoic philosopher.
Ellis opened the floodgate of Stoicism in his field, though as Codd and Robertson write, psychotherapists tend to read Ellis instead of retrieving the source. Nonetheless, the lineage is clear. Aaron T. Beck, the founder of Cognitive Therapy (and also heavily influenced by Ellis), liked to quote Marcus Aurelius:
"If thou are pained by any external thing, it is not the thing that disturbs thee, but thine own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now."
The School of Athens. (Fresco in Stanza della Segnatura), ca 1510-1511.
Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Big picture outlook: We are in control of our emotions. Emotions, as psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett writes in How Emotions Are Made, are not reactions but creations inspired by past experiences. This falls in line with Aurelius, whose quote above is not about the suppression of automatic response but rather choosing logic over irrational thinking. Emotions do not arrive from a mystical abyss. We have control in how we act and feel.
This is where logic is applied to psychotherapy: don't simply fall back on old patterns of behavior because you're accustomed to them, especially when you cast yourself as a victim or powerless cog in an uncontrollable process. As Niebur implies, many things are beyond our control. What is not is how we act in the face of adversity.
The Stoics knew that life was not about pleasure. Seeking only good feelings does not lead to freedom from the unpleasant realities of existence. These ancient philosophers preached the development of arete, excellence of character. They utilized the four foundations of Platonic virtue—wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude—as the philosophical bedrock in which to build that character. Such development requires self-control. Our brains seek quick dopamine hits that come with instant gratification. The tempered spirit sees the long game and adjusts accordingly.
Modern cognitive therapy techniques align with Stoicism in the understanding that emotions and beliefs are not derived from separate processes. Neuroscience backs this up: emotions are feelings, but what we feel must be translated into concepts. An upset stomach could be due to a break-up, yearning, or spoiled food. How we experience that feeling is not separate from the context that causes it. In each case, we have some amount of control over how we treat the symptom.
This leads us to another ancient practice that has recently experienced a renaissance: mindfulness. Paying continual attention (prosoche) to thoughts and feelings is the foundation of Stoic therapy. By recognizing destructive patterns of thinking the patient has an opportunity to reshape their experience of life.
The quest for this levelheadedness persists today and will likely persist as long as we're alive. We should derive some comfort from the fact that humans have been chasing it for millennia. Maintaining poise and control during challenging times has always been difficult. Knowing that how we act during times of challenge begins in our heads is the key to empowerment.
- Should cognitive behavioral therapy be taught in school? - Big Think ›
- 10 quotes from Meditations to unlock your inner Stoic - Big Think ›
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.