"Psychology is the tool for correcting capitalism's contradictions"

[FREE VERSION] Critical psychology researcher Khadijah Diskin on how we've internalized psychology's worst features


Khadijah Diskin is a PhD researcher in critical psychology in London. We chatted about popular misunderstandings of psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis, starting with the idea that we know anything at all about the brain.

[This as-told-to has been edited and condensed].

How I’ve come to think about the world is that people assume there are easy answers to these tough questions. And the fact of the matter is there aren’t easy answers. People don’t understand that psychology is all metaphor—there are no psychological “truths.” Every time there’s a shift in methodology, things come out that completely contradict what previous methodologies have supposedly proven.

I teach my students that so many things we think we know about the brain—even the very idea that biology influences behavior—are actually philosophical arguments, not arguments that have been proven scientifically. But psychology gives us the idea that we understand how the body works, specifically as it relates to behavior and personality. But really we’re working through abstraction, through metaphor, through assumption, that’s often disproved as much as it's proved.  There are just as many people that SSRIs don’t help as they do help, there are just as many people not helped by particular types of therapy as are helped. 

Just because you do something and it makes a certain part of a brain light up, that doesn’t actually mean anything. You can make a dead salmon’s brain light up, and neurologists have! 

When you say, “my neuroatypicality is causing me to do X, Y, and Z,” or, “Oh, sorry I can’t do this thing because the ADHD means the chemicals in my brain are this way,” that’s just...not what’s happening. And no good, rigorous clinician, psychiatrist, psychologist would talk in the terms that we talk about these things. We don’t know what’s happening! 

Taking the idea of ‘neurotypicality’ as an example. What the hell does neurotypicality even mean? There’s no real thing we can quantify, there is no normally functioning brain. That doesn’t exist. Brains are all different in their operational mechanics. That doesn’t mean it’s bad to do certain types of therapy or take drugs if they work, but that it’s just not science.

We’ve internalized these memes and Twitter account versions of psychology and the brain. I met a guy recently who told me he thought his partner was cheating on him, so he started to ask her really entrapping questions, and thought he could figure out if she was lying by whether she looked left or right. He thought he had this hack for human behavior. We see it in the body language experts, in popular cognitive science books, everywhere. And it’s always a surprise how much students believe these things, but it also makes sense because humans want a way to explain human behavior. We all end up doing this reductive analysis because it’s very often the only tool available to us.

We have this need to not only categorize, but crudely binarize things. It’s either good or bad, you’re a good person or a bad person. You’re sick or not sick. Your brain is neurotypical or atypical. These are logical traps and entrapments that white supremacist ways of discourse force us into. We now can only view ourselves as inherently valuable if we engage in this process of categorization.

We follow these flattened, simplistic views of the brain and behavior not only because they’re easily available, but because they’ve been pushed on us by a pro-capitalist psychology industry.

Freud’s nephew used his uncle’s works to create a marketing empire. In many ways, psychology is now necessary for the functioning of capitalism. Especially in the neoliberal epoch where everyone's obsessed with the politics of identity, psychology and psychiatry offer us an array of identities that when we unpack are wholly meaningless, but in a world where we're so disconnected from each other, we need to create these micro-identities and compound these micro-identities to make sense of ourselves.