The Punitive, Stigmatizing, Intellectually Sloppy Language of Psychology
I just came across an article in the popular magazine, Psychology Today, entitled, “The Problem with Being Gifted,” written July 15, 2014. This is a completely acceptable, run-of-the-mill article from the so-called science of psychology.
However, I find almost everything about the title of the article and the article itself unacceptable. The words and phrases the author used to describe highly intelligent children are not scientific in the least, rather they are degrading and stigmatizing.
I use this article as a typical example of how psychological theories and language are the reasons mental health issues can be so stigmatizing. I hypothesize we will never take away the stigmas until we change the underlying theories and the language.
Denise Cummins Ph.D., author of the article, has 1,025,109.8 words to choose from in this English language. Yet she chose the following words and phrases to describe the average gifted child in school:
- “BEHAVIORAL PROBLEM IN THE CLASSROOM”
- “NO, THE CHILD DOES NOT SUFFER FROM ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER OR OPPOSITIONAL DEFIANT DISORDER. THE CHILD “SUFFERS” FROM…GIFTEDNESS.” (Actual quote from the author, as if their intelligence is a symptom they suffer from.)
- “GIFTEDNESS CAN BE AS MUCH A CURSE AS A BLESSING.” (Another actual quote. This frames a negative reality for a child without the child’s consent. )
- “…THE SEEMINGLY ENDLESS QUESTIONS FROM THE GIFTED STUDENT CAN SEEM LIKE A SPECIAL KIND OF HELL.” (Actual quote…)
- “…GIFTEDNESS ALSO IS ASSOCIATED WITH EMOTIONAL, IMAGINATIONAL, SENSUAL, AND PSYCHOMOTOR OVER-EXCITABILITY.” (Emotions are biological bits of information supplied by our brain to other parts of our brain and body. Our emotions are private, personal, and customized for our personal nervous systems. To decide some children are over emotional or over excitable is a violation of their human rights.)
- “THEIR OVER-EXCITABILITY CAN MAKE THEM STAND OUT (NOT IN A GOOD WAY)…” (Again, this phrase frames a child’s responses as awkward and inappropriate instead of being customized to how he or she thinks and processes information.)
Cummings ends the article by discussing how to best meet the needs of the gifted child, but her suggestions are vague and indirectly degrading. In her first suggestion, Cummins actually refers to the sitcom, The Big Bang, to remind us how the fictional characters have a great time with one another but“…stand out like tarantulas on white bread everywhere else.”
Carol Bainbridge, credentialed advocate for the gifted, says psychologists pathologize the behavior of gifted children. I couldn’t agree more. I believe psychology is the attempt to pathologize all behavior when the behavior does not comply to a mythical idea of normal. People are stigmatized by their psychological diagnoses for good reason.
We need a paradigm shift that starts with a new premise for the human brain/personality. Psychology has a dozen or so theories of personality, depending on the text. These foundational theories are vague, confusing, contradictory, and scientifically unverified. The fact there are so many theories of personality means psychologists work with a hybrid of their own choosing for their research and practices. Educators are forced to do the same. The result is our students have no idea how to predict how we, the adult authorities, will interact with them day to day and year to year. Unpredictability is quite stressful for each and every human brain.
I propose we start with the idea that each human brain is making sense of information in the ways it is optimally able to given the circumstance and given each person’s unique IQ, depth perception, visual acuity, eye-hand coordination, balance, degree of muscle tone, size, weight, age, gender, experiential background, auditory acuity, spatial sense, directional sense, numerical and verbal abilities, to name a few. This premise is supported by the memory-prediction framework theory of the brain proposed by Jeff Hawkins.
If Hawkins is correct, then each human brain has a cognitive landscape where senses, perceptions, thoughts, and emotions all integrate with the end goal of allowing the brain to come up with a continuous string of predictions for what to do next. It means none of these biological components are able to work in isolation and they are all of equal importance.
With Hawkins’ memory-prediction framework theory of the brain, the bizarre fixations psychologists have had on behaviors and emotions will stop. Behaviors will be seen as byproducts of what is going on in the cognitive landscape of each human brain. Emotions will be seen as customized biological cues supplied by the brain to itself to assist in each human’s unique decision making processes. The bizarre importance and almost super human powers psychologists have assigned to human behaviors and emotions will stop.
If we see each child as possessing a brain that integrates uniquely and in a customized way with his or her body, we will use comparisons among children only for organizational purposes instead of using comparisons to determine the degree of mental health or illness of each human being.
When we compare a child’s brain to a mythical notion of a normal brain, we distort what a brain is suppose to be doing. It is not suppose to be striving to engage like the most ‘normal’ brain in the room. Each brain is suppose to be striving to make sense of information optimally for how it is able to inside the specific body it is in.