August 24th, 2012

A $10 billion metaphor for psychology

The only thing worse than struggling is discovering that you have been struggling with the wrong things. I found myself in this situation in early July when scientists at the $10 billion particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland announced that they had discovered the elusive Higgs boson particle. I didn’t even know they were looking. Of course, I’m a psychologist, not a nuclear physicist, so I might be forgiven for not keeping up with the big issues in the subatomic world. Yet how do I excuse my lackluster reaction to the news that the Higgs boson had been found?

The morning newspaper told me that a good number of my fellow citizens were struggling to understand exactly what the Higgs boson is. One guy was planning to ask his roommate who has a doctorate in physics from MIT for a private tutorial. Another fellow admitted his ignorance on the subject but said he was from New Jersey; as if that somehow gave him a free pass.

Fortunately, there were enough people taking the Higgs boson seriously to spawn a number of good explanations, videos and even a much-vaunted instructional cartoon on the Internet. After consulting a variety of these sources, I learned that the particle in question was named for physicist, Peter Higgs, who in 1964 proposed a mechanism suggesting the existence of a particle that could explain how other particles acquired mass. Although Higgs was not the only one to theorize about the existence of such a particle, he alone predicted some of its theoretical properties.

I also learned that a boson is a type of particle that allows multiple identical particles to exist in the same place in the same quantum state, a statement that I am perfectly happy to take on faith.

Physicists who devote their lives to studying these matters tell us that what makes the Higgs boson so hard to understand is that the particle in question is actually a field. When other particles move through the Higgs field, they acquire mass. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, likened the Higgs field to a party in Los Angeles. Let an unknown person enter the room and make his way to the bar and he moves freely, unimpeded by paparazzi and others who just want to be seen in the company of the rich and famous. In Higgs boson terms, he has less party mass than a celebrity who attracts people to him wherever he goes and consequently moves more slowly across the room. Like the LA partygoers, some particles are affected more by the Higgs field than others.

If you don’t think this has anything to do with psychology, then you need only consider the many well-established precedents for our field to emulate the physical sciences in their mode of inquiry and the object of their study. The idea of using empirical methods to investigate the connection between psychological processes and their underlying physiological mechanisms can be traced back to Aristotle whose book, “De Anima” (On the Soul), is considered by some to be the first psychology text. Aristotle postulated that the mind and the body are two facets of the same being, with the mind being simply one of the body’s functions. While Aristotle championed the scientific method, it wasn’t until 1879 that empirical techniques started being used routinely to study psychological phenomena in Wilhelm Wundt’s psychophysical laboratory in Leipzig. The list goes on with Sigmund Freud’s 1889 “Project for a Scientific Psychology” where the father of psychoanalysis attempted to explain psychopathology and everyday psychological processes on a neuronal level. Freud’s work was never published but efforts continue to link the life of the psyche and the behavior of the individual person to the function of biological and other systems.

Can the Higgs boson particle advance our understanding of psychological phenomena? DeGrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium isn’t even sure what impact it will have on quantum physics yet he is certain it will make its mark. After all, he reminds us, we couldn’t imagine the utility of the electron when it was first discovered and now we can’t get through a day without the benefits of electricity. In psychology, electronic technology gives us everything from sophisticated neuro-imaging and treatment techniques to colorful metaphors for insight and activation. It would certainly take more than a jolt of energy or a flash of insight for me to imagine a psychological application for Higgs boson. Yet, if nothing else, the particle gives us an interesting new metaphor for the effect of the environment on human development.

If the Higgs field represents our personal histories with their diverse opportunities, deficiencies, and challenges, then we are the particles moving through these fields. We move at different speeds, some of us slowed down by adversity, others, energized and propelled forward toward the achievement of our most cherished goals. We differ also in how readily we see our opportunities and advantages and how well we use them. Yet in whatever way we traverse the field, at whatever speed we travel, we acquire the psychological equivalent of mass, substance or plain old-fashioned character.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Worcester State Hospital and a consultant in the field of leadership development.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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