Brian R. Vandenberg, Ph.D.
Religious beliefs and delusions, existential questions, hypnosis, and developmental psychopathology beckon my attention. They do so because they expose the limitations and problems with basic assumptions that buttress theory and research. Let me tell you, briefly, how.
Do authentic religious experiences differ from delusions? This question cuts deep, challenging the medically based assumptions of the DSM that psychological disorders are illness-like entities with specific behavioral symptoms. Most religious beliefs would fall within the DSM definition of delusion, yet most religious believers are not delusional. The DSM solves this problem by exempting beliefs associated with established religions. But in doing so, delusions, which are symptoms of debilitating mental disorders, are transformed, rendered normal, because they are situated within a culturally accepted framework of social practice. They are not, thus, context free symptoms, but symptoms only if they fall outside the circumference of accepted sociocultural contexts of meaning. Not only does this pose a philosophical quandary about the nature of mental illness, it also prompts practical questions for clinical practice: What constitutes an established religion? Are beliefs associated with less mainstream religions more likely to be assessed as pathological? Does professional training influence diagnostic judgments? Are the same beliefs more likely to be assessed as pathological if they are not explicitly associated with an established religion?
Consider another issue. Existential questions about our death, the meaning of our life, the mystery and wonderment of finding ourselves here, now, alive, in this moment, are eschewed by most psychological theories. But how, then, can we have an encompassing psychology of human life if these most fundamental issues are excluded? How might we incorporate such a perspective into psychological theory and practice? Points where these issues become visible and researchable include how we change and cope, and what meaning and significance we find when we are faced with existential experiences of suffering, loss, grief, and abuse. Or when, in more prosaic situations, we are reminded of our finitude, limitations and mortality.
Hypnosis is another anomalous befuddlement. Hypnosis, which involves a brief conversation with a relative stranger, can result in feats usually considered impossible: parts of our body are anesthetized, wounds heal faster, we undergo audio, visual and proprioceptive disorientations, lose our sense of volition, and forget vivid, recent experiences. Hypnosis offers fertile ground for reexamining assumptions about psychological functioning, the power of human communication, the mind-brain link, what constitutes a legitimate psychological entity, and how we might understand the process of development. And development, itself, and a developmental psychopathology perspective in particular, offers yet another anomaly-exposing framework for reconsidering assumptions about the etiology, ontology, classification, and treatment of psychological disorders. My research explores tributaries, both theoretical and empirical, that spring from these anomalies that perplex, enlighten and inform.
As faculty, we are entrusted with the educational well-being of students, and I take this most seriously. I have had the privilege of working with outstanding Ph.D. students, whose insights, questions, and commitments have given rise to collaborative ventures examining a variety of topics and issues. It is also my good fortune to work with a faculty devoted to training our students to think critically, write well, and forge their own independent path.
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