Years ago when I was still teaching freshman psychology at a local 4-year university, I was told by one of my students, “Psychology is the science of common sense.” He wasn’t entirely wrong, but he wasn’t entirely right either.
He was right in defining psychology as a science, but it isn’t entirely science. It is also arts, and it is also humanities. Learning to become a psychologist while in graduate school meant studying a lot of the science. All the research around how human behavior happens, with its associates thinking processes and emotional experiences, has taught us many things about how to help people who are struggling. Embedded in that research is a vast vocabulary that allows one psychological scientist to talk to other psychologist scientists.
I’ve participated in a fair amount of therapy and all of them knew the science. But some were so cold and clinical that I never felt like they were entirely present in the moment with me. They were caught up in their documentation or their checkboxes or their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, trying to see which description they could ascribe to me. They wanted to align my personal narrative with their scientific vocabulary in order to understand me. This is where the arts and humanities come in.
With the academic push toward STEM learning and the regulatory environment’s push toward reproducibility and harm prevention, too many have forgotten how to embed the arts and humanities in our work. One of the great benefits I enjoyed in going off the beaten path for some of my science courses was to discover that adjunct faculty members have other interests outside of their academic profession. My chemistry professor is an amazing teacher and helped me learn how to do math when I had struggled for years; she also loved classical music and was able to demonstrate her appreciation for it during our lab sessions. My microbiology professor is an accomplished folk musician and plays multiple local venues each year. “Publish-or-perish” is the furthest thing from their minds and tenure was not driving them to being chained to their desks with no free time for living.
In the moments when a psychologist weaves an explanation of how a person’s painful present is related to their past, to their relationships and their life experiences, that is an art. When they sit with that hurting person, their ability to be emotionally present and fully themselves in the midst of that hurting person’s pain is a humanity. No scientist is complete without their art and their humanity, or else, why do we study at all?