Vaughan Bell: Living with ambiguity

A doctor receives a letter. A patient explains how a move to a new town last year plunged him into emotional chaos. But a brain scan shows a year-old tumour, damaging the brain’s circuits most heavily involved in emotion.

The new boss makes us nervous, we say, after a particularly edgy presentation at work, not realising that we accidentally ordered strongly caffeinated coffee beforehand, rather than our usual decaf.

We weave stories around our lives because we think in reasons but often we have little access to the actual causes of our emotions and behaviour. Of all the discoveries in psychology this has been the most consistent, from Freud to fMRI, but it is also one of the most misunderstood. The drive to "understand ourselves", the mantra of 21st century pop psychology, often produces more complex, more acceptable, "reasons", but little additional understanding of what causes us to react as we do. Ironically, this is where psychology has helped me out the most. There are causes we will never know about and sometimes it’s better to live with the ambiguity. I suspect we understand ourselves better by knowing the limitations of our insight.

Vaughan Bell is a clinical and research psychologist. He’s affiliated with the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, and is currently working in Colombia, Latin America.

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