Psychiatrist, Writer, Commentator

A grain of salt

Wednesday, 26th March 2014

Human behaviour is intriguing – from understanding what we do and why we do it to the bigger questions of human nature and our quest for meaning. It seems we are all amateur psychologists of sorts.

There’s an old gag in psychiatry about answering a taxi driver who asks what you do for a living. If you’re a surgeon, the driver never says “Hmmm, I’m not convinced robotic surgical techniques offer any advantage of traditional open surgical techniques” but if you’re a psychiatrist, you can guarantee the driver will give you his thoughts on treating depression and what really drives human behaviour. And fair enough too.

Will the real expert stand up?

There are no experts in the field who can truly claim the leadership role. We each have our own perspective – psychologists, social workers, behavioural neurologists, psychiatrists… and the list goes on. You can add the religions, the philosophers, writers and many more. What we have in common is some body of knowledge and an opinion based on that knowledge.

You can judge mine for yourself – I’m a doctor and specialist in psychiatry. I’ve worked for almost 15 years as the head of psychiatric service in a general hospital, and dabbled in the media mainly through radio and writing, although mainly of an academic nature. In this column I’m hoping to balance academic and personal experience with a focus on topics drawn more from everyday life than the clinics and journals.

Putting life in general on the psychiatrists couch, and seeing what turns up! And just like the covers-band in your local pub, I do take requests – feel free to email suggestions for topics.

Banana Therapy James Nash/Flickr

Of course, shining a psychological light on everyday experiences means different things to different people. Psychology is defined in various ways – I like the Merriam-Webster definition: the science or study of the mind and behaviour. I like it because it distinguishes and emphasizes both science and study.

For me, whilst science is the ultimate goal – science and human behaviour are a problematic duo at times. Science relies on empirical data and the measurement of human behaviour is fraught with difficulty. Difficulty in both the measurement and also in the interpretation. Not only does the act of measurement change that which is being measured (our own version of the Uncertainty Principle) but every result gets interpreted through the prism of the writer and their own beliefs, personality and culture. The search for a tangible outcome on a process as complex as human behaviour can be a minefield – sometimes tiny bits of data get turned into all-encompassing theories. Is it any wonder our field is often greeted with scepticism?


So whilst we aim for science, we sometimes just get study – informed by literature, art, philosophy and our own unique set of life experiences and arguably as worthy as anything the lab has to offer. That’s why my first column in this series is called a grain of salt. Perhaps a truer title would have been “a grain of salt, and some”.

I intend covering the serious and the not-so serious and to have a little fun along the way. I will try to separate the wheat from the chaff, but there is a real risk that all I’ll achieve is adding more chaff. I hope you enjoy it – and of course, feel free to join the conversation – just like the taxi driver, every perspective is welcomed. After-all, who knows who will end up being the true expert in this ever-expanding field?


This article first appeared in The Conversation