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What is Zen Psychology?



If people are confronted with the words "Zen" and "Psychology" in the same sentence, many will envision visiting some sort of guru meditating on a mountain top, while thoughts of "oneness with the universe" float through his head. People may also foresee a client in East-influenced therapy turning into a Birkenstock and bead-wearing "granola" who, at the hair salon, won't stop talking about her "mystical visions while in a transcendental state." Warping the stereotypes further, people may associate "Zen and Psychology" with Dianetics, Moonies, Hare Krishna, or any one of the unsettling cults they heard about on "Oprah" and "Hard Copy." Are these stereotypes warranted? Is there any truth to them? What is Zen, anyway? Please, read on...

Is Psychology a Science?

What Is Zen?

Is Zen a Religion?

Zen Psychology

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Is Psychology a Science?


It is easy to see psychology as something less than a science, especially considering some of the things people call "psychology." The question might possibly be better phrased, "CAN Psychology Be Scientific?"
I brought out my old psychology textbooks and a Webster's Dictionary for a cursory answer. My introduction to psychology textbook states that "Psychology, broadly defined, is the systematic study of behavior and experience" (Kalat, 1986). Hmmm, "broadly defined." I need a more precise definition than that. Webster's uses the word "science" in the definition of "psychology." I would agree that Webster's definition alone is not enough proof. We must examine what aspect of psychology is deemed "scientific." So back to Webster's I go, and find that "scientific" means "systematic and accurate." Furthermore, science is "a way of obtaining knowledge by means of objective observations," according to my old experimental psychology book (McBurney, 1990). McBurney stresses the concept of "objective observations" that set science apart from other systems of knowledge, such as religion, philosophy, and politics. By "objective observation" he means those observations that would be seen by everyone in the same way. Carefully reported procedures and records of objective observations are crucial factors in any science. These objective observations can mean the amount of water a rat under stress drinks or certain childhood demographic features of prison inmates. Note the terms "stress" and "demographic features" also need to be specifically defined (examples: "Stress" could mean a 60W light in the rat cage flashing once a second for one hour. "Demographic features" could be parental marital status, urban or rural living, socioeconomic class, etc.). If proper records are kept, observations are objective, and terms used are well defined, the experiment can be repeated in the future and in similar settings to test the accuracy of the observations. If an experiment is repeated several times and the results are consistent, we can predict consistency in future experiments. "Predictive consistency" is at the core of scientific research.


"If something exists, it exists in some amount. If it exists in some amount, it can be measured."
-E. L. Thorndike

Many claim that psychology cannot be a science because the mind is "subjective." "Subjective" is a measure of personal view that not everyone must accept as well, and is in sharp contrast to something that is objective. I'll use my least favorite beverage, coffee, to compare subjective and objective. The taste of coffee is reported subjectively by the taster- "this is bitter!", I would say. You might have different ideas about what is bitter and what is not. However, a scientist can say, "this subject reports a bitter taste," thus making an objective observation of the subject's response, and records it accordingly. What happened here is that a subjective observation ("this is bitter") is being observed objectively (no one can refute that I said "this is bitter"), and now enters into the realm of science.
Here's a real life example: When I was 10 years old, our family went to the Hershey Amusement Park, run by the candy company of the same name. Near the exit, a clip-board carrying woman asked my sister and asked if we would like to taste some chocolate bars. With parental consent, we tasted several slightly-different recipies of the same candy bar, then wrote down our ratings, one to five, on sweetness, deliciousness, smoothness, etc. Our subjective tastes were recorded, and the objective results were tallied across hundreds or thousands of people, and in part determined the new taste of a Hershey's candy bar. This is a simple example of "objectifying the subjective," and is consistent with the definition of a science.

Now we can create a working definition for psychology that fits into the description of a science- "Psychology is the systematic and accurate study of behavior and experience through objective observation."


Sexual Attraction and the Bridge Experiment

One of the oldest philosophical questions is, "What is love." Isn't this question beyond the scope of science? Most people probably wish it were. However, sociologists, medical researchers, and psychologists have learned a great deal about attraction and love within just the last few decades. From the Kinsey reports (Kinsey, 1948; Kinsey, 1953) which first uncovered the diversity of human sexuality to current neurological research of sexual desire, science has shed light on many mysteries concerning love, relationships, and attraction.
One example of modern psychological research on attraction was done by Dutton and Aron (1974) in the 1970's. They placed a female experimenter on two bridges, a high, wobbly bridge and a low, firm one. The experimenter asked men to make up a story about a picture she showed to them, saying the experiment was to study "the effects of scenic attractions on creative expression." She gave her phone number to each man, and told him he could call her if he had any further questions about the study.
In fact, the experiment had nothing to do with creative expression. The researcher's hypothesis was that the men would "misattribute" the physical arousal of being on a higher, less safe bridge, to sexual arousal and attraction to the woman. The results were convincing. Most of the men on the higher bridge told stories using sexual or romantic themes, and 39% of the men called the female experimenter, many asking for a date. The men on the lower, safe bridge told few stories with sexual or romantic content, and only 9% called her. The interpretation is that the men on the high bridge did indeed misattribute their arousal on the high bridge as attraction towards the experimenter. Further similar studies, adjusting for possible other factors involved, support the interpretation.
Which may beg the question: if you want your date to fall in love with you, what type of movie might you go to see?

Granted, there is much to psychology that may be considered "unscientific" by the definitions above. It is difficult to prove, for example, Freud's "Oedipal complex" using scientific methods, and difficult to empirically study such things as feelings, fantasies, values, and beliefs. However, in today's world, psychologist's subjective interpretations of clients are often the fodder of a scientific study, and scientific studies into the psychological workings of man tend to direct clinical and counseling practice. The American Psychological Association acknowledges the duality: "the more contemporary reality [is] that psychology is both a science and a profession and that psychology can involve basic research or can be applied in many areas. It is important to understand this dual nature of psychology..." (APA, 1993).
The answer, then, to the question, "Is Psychology a Science," is arguably "sometimes." The answer to the question, "Can Psychology be Scientific," is a resounding "yes."


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The text on this page (c) December, 2000. All images are thought to be public domain. If you feel an image infringes on a copyright, please e-mail me at the address above.