Why do novelists and playwrights understand people so much better than psychology does?

As person who taught psychology most of my adult life,  I must say that novelists and playwrights have an accuracy about human nature far beyond what psychology appears to become, “the science of the brain.”   We laugh when we think of people who, a century or so ago, thought you could understand people by analyzing the shape of their heads.    Doesn’t psychology realize that reducing human beings to variables is unhealthy.

Even the least acclaimed struggling author has to strive to capture some fraction of what it means to be a human being.   To be even remotely convincing, you have to understand who people are and how they interact.

What happened to psychology?   When I studied psychology, oh many decades ago, it still liked to think of itself as a “new science.”    What are we fifty years later? I dare anyone to compare a textbook from 1963 to one in 2013.   A few eye-opening “discoveries,” I suppose, but nearly all the identical information.   Except that all the thinkers of the mid-twentieth century are now purely historical footnotes.

What is new?  What is relevant?  Brain chemistry.   CT Scans of the brain.    I had someone tell me yesterday that they can see your dreams by measuring your brainwaves.

Right, I remember that science fiction story.   As a kid, I was promised space cars and domed cities and machines that could read your dreams.   Pictures of brains in vibrant colors?   That’s dull stuff.

I told my friend that I was going to be impressed until they could do that thing where you’re inside my brain.   Kind of like Being John Malkovich meets The Matrix.   Then they’ll have gotten somewhere!


Meanwhile, what do all the pretty pictures of your brain tell us about ourselves?   Do they tell why we live the lives we lead?  Neither the sorrow nor the pity can be captured by computerized maps and images.


But read any decent novel or watch a good play and there will be truth about human nature you won’t see a computer screen or read on a print out, or  a psychology textbook.


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