On being open to ideas from anywhere

Ian Florance talks to Peter Spencer about yoga, chronic fatigue and more

Read Dr Peter Spencer’s profile on the Leeds Trinity University website and you’ll notice a huge range of interests – from gifted children and utopias to chronic fatigue syndrome, league tables, marathon running and personal construct theory. He also holds a British Wheel of Yoga teacher’s diploma. His conversation relates all kinds of disciplines and people to his practice as a health psychologist.

When asked why he trained in psychology, Peter answers, ‘It was in the air in the late sixties. People read Penguin psychology paperbacks on the train. Popular culture took states of consciousness seriously. Movements like transcendental meditation addressed it directly.’

He’d enjoyed sciences at school but didn’t go straight on to university. ‘I took a couple of years out. I enjoyed working as a gardener, and my love of exercise and the open air is still a huge influence.’

Ultimately Peter took a PhD in experimental psychology, but he was ‘interested in working with people, particularly with people who had suffered brain damage. I started work in rehabilitation and became interested in working with children. A teacher training qualification led to work in special educational needs. When I moved into higher education this was part of my remit. It reinforced what  already thought – labels we use don’t apply to the complex range of problems an individual patient experiences. We might say a back injury has caused depression but this causality may be the other way round or an earlier life event, for instance, might be involved. We have to approach psychological practice from many angles including the social, philosophical and physical.’

This is the key to the rest of the interview. Although Peter followed a reasonably conventional psychologist training route (he is now a qualified health psychologist and an Associate Fellow of the Society), our discussion became less about a ‘planned career’ and more about an intellectual and personal journey.

Peter had become interested in yoga in the early ’70s under the influence of the transcendental meditation movement of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (a famous late-’60s figure and the Beatles’ guru). In the ’80s and ’90s this transmuted into a commitment to exercise, fitness and marathon running. ‘Too much exercise caused me physical damage. I took up yoga again so that I could run better. But for reasons I’ll explain this came to a dead stop in 1994.

‘Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to meet and work with Don Bannister, who pioneered personal construct theory in the 1970s – he wrote The Inquiring Man, one of those iconic Penguin paperbacks. I was interested in whether psychology could produce a better world, and that’s where my interest in utopias came from. Utopias can be personal as well as social and political. Given those times – the growth of cults and communes for instance – there were many examples of utopias going wrong. Erich Fromm’s work on the rise of socialism and fascism also provided insights. They all impose a strong individual’s personal blueprint for life on other people. Therapy and treatment can be viewed as an attempt at a personal utopia. People often look for a prescription for living from their therapist.’

The onset of chronic fatigue syndrome in 1994 marked a turning point in Peter’s life. ‘I’d loved exercise and I couldn’t understand what was happening. It was a dark time. I’d just started working at a hospital, treating people with chronic pain. One key to my ultimate recovery was a wonderful GP who used cognitive behaviour therapy without realising that was what she was doing. She also provided a key by saying “you should treat it as chronic pain”.’

Peter’s article in The Psychologist of May 1998 (see www.bps.org.uk/spen) records his own approaches and other sufferers’ diverse treatments. ’People identified 39 different beneficial interventions. They recovered in their own way. I used many approaches in what amounted to a study of one patient seen from the inside and the outside. I changed my diet, had acupuncture, aromatherapy and spiritual healing. I started gentle yoga again. I began to recover 18 months later, and, without being overly dramatic, it changed my life. I never was particularly ambitious but I became less so. Relationships became more important. The barrier between me in and outside work became completely permeable. I decided to become a yoga teacher and to investigate how it could help different conditions.’

The article elicited a number of critical responses as well as sympathetic ones. One of the latter, from an eminent psychologist, was supportive and suggested ‘the best treatment is often no treatment’. ‘Which is an interesting thought,’ says Peter. But the whole experience confirmed in a very personal way, views of psychology Peter had been developing throughout his life.

‘First, the mind–body split makes no sense to me and that’s a key to how I approach psychology now. There aren’t two things that need to be linked. Asking if an illness is psychological or physical is – not quite, but nearly – a useless question.  One of the things yoga teaches you is not to see thought, muscular movement and breathing as separate things. Yoga means stillness, reaching a place where words aren’t important. It teaches that the way to go round a problem is to go inside not outside. Some of these ideas link back to the work of William James and Abraham Maslow, and to new thinking like Oliver James’s Affluenza.

‘This is an example of drawing ideas from anywhere useful. I got ideas on hysteria – which led to my interest in witch crazes – from Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible and also from the 1970s D.M. Thomas novel The White Hotel. Psychology needs to be open to ideas from different areas, even those which we might initially distrust. If there’s a report that aromatherapy or acupuncture helps a syndrome we should take the reports seriously and research them.

‘My son is an experimental physicist and his discipline draws influences very widely, since its practitioners are international and use many non-Western intellectual traditions. Imagination and flights of fancy are techniques of modern hard sciences. My son looks at psychology text books and papers and shakes his head. Psychology can sometimes appear as if it is imitating 19th-century Victorian experimental science rather than an open 21st-century one. I think health psychology has taken the lead in being more open in this way.’

Peter’s recent work reflects these views. ‘I run yoga classes with patients suffering from multiple sclerosis, depression and Parkinson’s. I teach health psychology to undergraduates and also serve as external examiner on an MSc on learning disabilities and a BSc in counselling psychology. ThenI have some research going on into the use of yoga in chronic pain and fatigue.’

Can you see progress in the area? ‘There’s an article in a recent Health Psychology Update reporting research into the effects of yoga treatment of cancer patients. So, yes, some of these areas are being looked at. But there are some fundamental questions to be asked about what psychology is, how we train and how we do it.’

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