Vicky Newham

Psychology, psychotherapy and psychiatry in fiction

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In view of #psywrite starting tonight on Twitter, hosted by @rosieclaverton and myself, I thought I’d add to Rosie’s blogpost and outline what psychology involves and how it differs from psychotherapy and psychiatry.

Psychology is the scientific study of human thought, emotion and behaviour. I did a 4 year BSc at Birkbeck College, London. We studied research methods and statistics each year. Other modules covered memory, perception, attention, developmental psychology, family studies, psychoanalysis, cognition and emotion, abnormal psychology, language development, social psychology, brain and behaviour, parapsychology and pseudoscience, and animal learning theory. Birkbeck has a reputation for excellent research and so my degree was very science-y, which I loved. When studying abnormal psychology, for example, we learnt about psychological explanations of disorders as well as biochemical and neuro-anatomical ones. This is how it should be and is how many of the A-level specifications work too.

I realised quickly when I first started teaching GCSE and A-level psychology that many people don’t really know what the subject covers. They sign up for the course thinking that it’s about analysing dreams and people’s body language, and hope that they will learn how to read people’s minds and psycho-analyse them (which usually means figuring out whether they think the person a) likes them or b) fancies them). Oh, how many people I’ve had to disappoint over the years.

Psychology is an academic subject. It is a science. It involves learning about and evaluating explanations of thought, emotion and behaviour using theoretical frameworks, and testing them using scientific methods. Studying ‘pure’ psychology at undergraduate level does not generally involve any clinical experience. Psychotherapy involves treating mental health problems using psychological methods. This sometimes involves post-graduate training (so the therapist has a general degree in psychology) but it is also possible to train as a psychotherapist without an undergraduate psychology degree. Psychiatry, which is Rosie’s area, is a specialism of medicine and involves diagnosing and treating (psychiatric) disorders in various settings.

There is some overlap between psychology and psychiatry and also points of departure and difference. For example, I know about hypothesised causes of a range of disorders, what treatments are used and what research shows about both … but I have very little clinical experience. Psychiatry is all about the clinical side of things.

Psychology covers lots of topics which don’t relate to mental health, and many which do, including:

• how memory works and when and why it doesn’t (amnesia), including eye witness testimony
• attachment between child and caregiver, attachment failure and disruptions, and day care implications
• body’s response to stress, effect of stress on health, causes of stress, treatments
• abnormality, explanations of why people develop mental health problems, eating disorders
• group behaviour, conformity, obedience, ethical issues in research
• relationship formation, maintenance & breakdown, love, cross-cultural differences in relationships, gay, lesbian & electronic relationships
• Pro-social behaviour (eg. altruism, bystander behaviour)
• Anti-social behaviour (aggression and violence), including causes
• Biorhythms, sleep and dreaming, including sleep disorders such as narcolepsy
• Perception (receiving sensory input) and attention (processing it consciously and unconsciously)
• Cognitive development (how thinking develops) and moral development, implications for learning
• Intelligence
• How we learn (operant & classical conditioning, and social learning theory)
• How culture, gender and individual differences affect phenomena
• How the brain works, including structure, neural pathways and neurochemistry
• Personality and gender development, including gender roles and gender dysphoria
• Evolutionary psychology and its influence on human reproductive behaviour
• Addictions, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, autism, amongst others – symptoms, causes and treatments
• Psychological treatments and biological ones including psychosurgery
• Research design and implementation, validity and reliability

The purpose of #psywrite is to provide a regular time and place where writers can ask Rosie and I questions about psychology and/or psychiatry in relation to plots and characters. For example, you might want to check the plausibility of something you’ve plotted, terminology or accuracy. Don’t worry about whether your question comes under ‘psychology’ or ‘psychiatry’, just ask away.

The first one is tonight, Tuesday 21st October at 20.00 GMT on Twitter, using the #psywrite hashtag. Hosted by @rosieclaverton and @VickyNewham

Author: Vicky Newham

Vicky Newham is a writer, living in Whitstable, Kent. She writes crime fiction, psychological thrillers and science fiction. Her main projects are novels, but she also writes short stories, flash fiction, non-fiction articles and some poetry.

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