Mixing Memory

Gregg Henriques On a Unified Psychology

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post on the unification of psychology, in which I addressed (rather critically) a paper by Gregg Henriques. Dr. Henriques was kind of enough to reply in comments, and because it’s a two-week old post, I didn’t want his comment to languish in obscurity as a result of the blog world’s short attention span. So with his permission, I’m giving his comment a post of its own. Here it is, in its entirety:

Hi Chris,

You wrote:

‘In the 12 years that I’ve been studying psychology, I’ve been asked no more than 5 times what psychology is, and each time, I struggled and ultimately failed to come up with a definition. To be honest, though, that doesn’t bother me in the least.’

This is, of course, precisely the point. Psychologists can’t define the discipline, rarely reflect on that fact, and when they do they rationalize their inability to answer it with some justification that definitions aren’t really that important anyway. That is why I titled the target article for the series you are commenting on Psychology Defined. In it I articulate why the proper definition of psychology is the science of mind, where mind is defined as the set of mental behavior. This is very close to Kihlstrom’s definition, which he took from William James. But the term mental life carries with it a phenomenological implication (related to your note about flatworms) that brings me to a second crucial point about the field of psychology–it hasn’t even resolved the human versus animal distinction. This is another key focus of my paper, in that I articulate why the basic psychological sciences (behavioral, basic cognitive, neuroscience) should be conceptually separated from the human psychologies (personality, social, cultural).

On what grounds do I make these claims? Well, that is where the whole system that I have proposed comes in (Henriques, 2003, 2004, 2005, in press). The system is called the Tree of Knowledge (ToK) System and it consists of four key ideas. The first key idea is the diagram of the Tree of Knowledge System which depicts cosmic evolution as consisting of one level of pure Energy and four dimensions of complexity (Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture). These dimensions correspond to the behavior of four classes of objects (material objects, organisms, animals, and humans), and four classes of science (physical, biological, psychological, and social).

The second crucial component of the system is the Justification Hypothesis (JH), which is the Mind to Culture ‘joint point’ on the ToK diagram. The JH is the notion that the human self-consciousness system evolved in response to the ‘adaptive problem of justification’ which was created by the evolution of language. The third key piece is Behavioral Investment Theory (BIT), which is the Life to Mind joint point on the ToK diagram. BIT posits that the nervous system evolved as an increasingly flexible computational system that coordinates the behavioral expenditure of energy of the animal-as-a-whole. The final piece of the ToK System is the Influence Matrix (IM), is an integrative model of social motivation and affect represented in diagram form. The IM posits that relational processes operate on three broad interdependent dimensions that exist across cultures: Love (cooperative influence), Power (competitive influence), and Freedom (freedom from influence).

I don’t want to get into a detailed elaboration of my framework here and I realize the thumbnail description offered can be easily dismissed as confusing and jargon laden (although I will state that my work is rarely labeled ‘mindbogglingly banal’ or ‘trite’). The point I want to make is that I am not simply arguing that we should all just get along because that would be better for us. Instead, I am arguing that through the novel ideas listed above, one achieves a new way of looking at the field that results in a unified view. And if one knows anything about the history of modern biology and the evolutionary synthesis, there are good reasons to believe that a unified theoretical framework that can actually account for empirical phenomena, make novel predictions, and generate a shared language that cuts across the disciplinary spectrum would result in a tremendous advance in our current knowledge state. Hell, it might even result in such improvement in communication that those of us trained as ‘head shrinkers’ could learn the wonderful things cognitive psychologists have to teach us about the role of memory in psychological disorders!

Gregg Henriques
Director of Clinical Training
Combined-Integrated Doctoral Program
James Madison University


  1. #1 CA
    November 19, 2006

    I am hard-pressed to argue with two statements: 1) “a shared language that cuts across the disciplinary spectrum would result in a tremendous advance” and 2) “it might even result in such improvement in communication that those of us trained as ‘head shrinkers’ could learn the wonderful things cognitive psychologists have to teach us about the role of memory in psychological disorders!” Whether the ToK, JH, BIT, and IM compose the best route to those particular ends may need to wait until the publication of the details (Henriques, 2003, 2004, 2005, in press). Among disadvantages of the current chauvinistic separation and protective attitude toward parochialist vocabulary is the difficulty of cooperative and collaborative advantage for advancement of knowledge (in a tree or not) and its practical application.

  2. #2 Chris
    November 19, 2006

    A shared language would be wonderful, though I think it’s probably a pipe dream at this point. That’s because, in order to have a shared language, you have to have at least a fair amount of agreement about the intension, if not the extension of the words in that language, and in psychology, that would pretty much require a metatheoretical framework like the one that Henriques propose. Unfortunately, I don’t think such a metatheoretical framework is possible right now (for the reasons I mentioned in the post Dr. Henriques is commenting on), and for reasons independent of the production of a shared language, I’m not even sure it’s desirable. I think terminological rigor is very important, and in some areas of psychology it’s almost completely lacking, while cross-disciplinary use of terms can be very inconsistent. I think the best way to solve that problem is not a grand unifying framework, but a conversation about particular terminology when confusion is clearly resulting from inconsistent uses, and an attention to terminological rigor in areas where it is lacking.

  3. #3 CA
    November 21, 2006

    I see. So it is like Iraq, sectarian differences can’t be easily (and maybe not desirably) unified, even by a superpower (or Tree of Knowledge). So it is best accepted as a fact of life and translators used when neccesary.