December 1st, 2011

Psychologist wins Nobel Prize

When this year’s Nobel Prize winners were announced in October, there was a psychologist on the list. Sweden’s Tomas Tranströmer is not the first psychologist to win a Nobel Prize, but he is the first to win one for poetry. The news is at once surprising and overdue – surprising because previous Nobel honors for psychological work have gone to staunch empiricists, overdue because of the strong conceptual links between psychology and poetry.

In a Sept. 2003 article in the American Psychologist, “Behavioral Science and the Nobel Prize,” Ludy Benjamin Jr. traces the history of the Nobel Prize with particular attention to individuals whose work is important for psychology. Since the first prize was awarded in 1901, 32 recipients were so honored, most often for achievements in physiology and medicine since no prize is given for psychology.

The more familiar winners include Walter Rudolf Hess in 1949 for his studies of midbrain control of emotion and motivation, Francis Crick and James Watson, the 1962 winners for the molecular structure of DNA, ethologists Konrad Lorenz (1973) and Nikolaas Tinbergen (1973), and Roger Sperry (1981) for localization of function in the brain. Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, was the first winner to have a doctoral degree in psychology. The list of notable also-rans is even longer and peppered with such familiar names as Wilhelm Wundt, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Ivan Pavlov.

So many intellectual giants with ties to psychology and not a poet in the bunch – until now. Enter Tomas Tranströmer, arguably Sweden’s best-known poet, who graduated from the University of Stockholm in 1956 with a degree in psychology. There is scant biographical material available in English but the little I have found describes him as having worked in a Swedish institution for juvenile offenders or, according to the Los Angeles Times, with “prisoners and drug addicts.” Tranströmer suffered a stroke in 1990 that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak and, while this event put an end to his clinical practice, it did nothing to dampen his productivity as a poet.

While scientists with ties to psychology have been knocking at the physiology and medicine door to the Nobel Prize for over a century, the first bona fide psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, gained entrance through the economics portal in 2002. Now the second psychologist, Tomas Tranströmer, slips in through the unguarded literature entrance. And why not? The links between poetry and psychology, especially clinical psychology, are readily apparent.

Robert Frost describes the origin of a poem the way a psychologist might describe the work of psychotherapy, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.” Connecting inchoate sensation to feeling, linking feeling to thought and helping people put their experience into words – this is the work of the poet and the clinical psychologist. It is the work that Tomas Tranströmer has been doing all his professional life.

In the words of his Nobel citation, Tranströmer was honored “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us a fresh access to reality.” He writes about ordinary experience – the view from a window, nature, music – in a way that allows us to glimpse a realm of deeper meaning. Whether he starts with an everyday image like the sight of houses in a summer landscape or with a situation clearly associated with psychology like the experience of waking from a dream, he can be counted on to call the reader’s attention to a hidden dimension of his subject matter. He gives us the poem, Solitary Swedish Houses, clear and crisp as a photograph, but then adds “the seed . . . kicking inside the earth” and the “agitated voices, faces” that “fly in the telephone wires.” In his poem, Dream Seminar, the poet describes how the act of awakening annihilates dreams, and then asks if they are “annihilated or just invisible.” He tantalizes us with the suggestion that “There is a kind of out-of-sight dreaming/that never stops. Light for other eyes./A zone where creeping thoughts learn to walk.”

In a world of infinite complexity, it comes as no surprise that Tranströmer celebrates the complexity of the human person and the difficulty of really knowing one another. In The Gallery, the sleepless poet psychologist contemplates the dreamlike images of former patients and concludes that “It happens rarely/that one of us really sees the other.” “A person shows himself for an instant,” he writes, “as in a photograph but clearer,” while in the background there is something “indistinct but overwhelming. . ./It’s his life, it’s his labyrinth.”

In combining a passion for understanding with a deep reverence for mystery, Tomas Tranströmer embodies psychology’s scientific and humanistic perspectives and reminds us that we need both to even begin to understand the richness of human experience. n

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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