Making the 'invisibilia' visible
Nick Hartley reviews a new radio show and podcast.
Invisibilia is a show about psychology without claiming to be about psychology. It’s about the invisible things that move and motivate our actions, and it makes visible the power that our inner experiences seem to have over us.
In the first episode, with a warm and self-deprecating style, This American Life’s Alix Spiegel and Radiolab’s Lulu Miller guide the listener through different theoretical and clinical approaches to ‘thinking’. The tales of a ‘secret revolution’ in thought science will excite even if you dare to think you know it all already.
The first episode begins with an image designed to startle; a man who began to have intrusive thoughts about brutally harming his wife. The show does not shy away from the violence of these thoughts, and yet by interviewing the man in such a sincere and curious manner they duck any accusations of sensationalism. This entertaining and educative style continues as Spiegel... or was it Miller... (they admit their voices sound the same to comic effect) talk us through the changes in theory about thoughts across the last century; moving from the Freudians interpreting the unconscious meaning in our phantasies, to the "nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so" philosophy of cognitive behavioural therapy. I've often thought that criticism of CBT often ignores the constructivist stance of the approach, and the breezy interview with Aaron T. Beck featured in the programme gently challenges the stereotypes we may hold of psychotherapy's most ubiquitous orientation.
We're then presented with the so called modern, which can equally be described as the ancient. An elegant explanation of mindfulness and third wave therapies shows how they are drawing on eastern traditions to teach us to turn into our thoughts and to allow space for them in our mind. Staring at thoughts and seeing them as the 'invisibilia' that they are, helps take away the power they have over us.
This academic approach to cognition in the show’s first half is then put through the ringer by a story that manages to move, shock and inspire. Suffice to say that the story of 12-year-old Martin Pistorius and his mysterious coma will change both the way you think about thoughts... and about Barney the Dinosaur. Working as a Clinical Psychologist across oncology and palliative care settings, I found this story offers hope whilst acknowledging the difficult psychological places visited through the experience of physical illness.
Spiegel and Miller are careful not to give us any answers about what works, though I fear they rather mischaracterise the Freudians and Beckites as arguing the toss over how meaningful thoughts are. However, their main point stands; that when you walk through a therapist’s door it is not possible to know everything about their approach.
This first programme in the series leaves the mental health professions with questions about how we can best explain to those we meet about what to expect in therapy. Irvin Yalom, in Existential Psychotherapy, suggests that the key ingredient in therapy - the therapeutic relationship - is much like the hidden extras thrown in to the pudding mix in your mother's cooking. Can and should we try to make these 'invisibilia' visible?
- Reviewed by Dr Nick Hartley, a Clinical Psychologist, in Newcastle Upon Tyne
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