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Missing the Big Picture: Historians and Psychotherapists Teach Us Why Comprehension Can Be Elusive

June 22, 2020

The great recession of 2008 was founded on a web of complex financial relationships. The story is now fairly well understood, but we first had to grasp new terms like collateralized debt obligation. The housing bubble that burst rested on mortgages that never should have been signed. The collapse impacted everyone, except for some big banks that were rescued despite gross miscalculations.

Interviews with political and economic leaders in subsequent years were strange in that most of them could articulate aspects of the underlying problem and yet claimed they were surprised by the collapse of the economy. My sense was that they were telling the truth. They had deep knowledge, and yet they did not really understand what was happening and where it would lead.

Psychotherapy offers similar instances of blocked comprehension. Freud tried to account for such limitations by describing an unconscious part of the mind. Many clinicians today reject psychoanalysis and its mechanistic models, but they still acknowledge the phenomenon and wonder what triggers that oft-delayed moment of understanding. History might be able to help us.

Seeing and not seeing in history

Let us consider another economic crisis, this one during the era of slavery. Recent work by New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones in The 1619 Project clarifies events long forgotten. For example, she recounts how cotton production depended on slavery and was as central to the U.S. economy as oil has been in our time. She describes the 1837 economic collapse which is reminiscent of our 2008 crisis.

Expanding cotton production depended on having an increasing supply of slaves who were pushed to the limits of their capacity. As supply grew, ownership in cotton expanded through financial instruments like those developed in the housing bubble of our time. There was international trade in state-backed bonds rooted in slave-based production. The bubble burst into defaults and a prolonged recession.

Both economic crises were more complex than I have conveyed. The point is that events in history have recurred based on foundations that were fundamentally flawed and yet widely known. In retrospect, the collapse seems obvious but very few predicted it. Many knowledgeable people were aware of the components. They knew things, but they did not comprehend how they related or connected over time.

Was this real or feigned ignorance? Despite extraordinary greed and manipulation at the heart of these crises, the damage to most of the perpetrators suggests a profound lack of understanding. Many may have known the risks and hoped to escape before the inevitable collapse, but a pervasive fragmentation of knowledge is evident. People fail to put the pieces together, even with history as a guide.

Knowing and not knowing in psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is taught one patient at a time, and so I will offer a parallel to the surprising ignorance of historical figures with one based on self-discovery in my own personal therapy. I was able to trace fluctuations in my self-esteem to recurring hopes for recognition based on childhood experiences with my father. The pieces of the puzzle seemed obvious in retrospect. The realization floored me.

As therapy deepened my understanding of the role played by current and past events in my life, I saw the complexity of the mind and realized that artificial ideas like the unconscious were not necessary. No part of my experience was buried in a remote part of my mind. I was fully aware of past conflicts with my father, and I could observe the thoughts and feelings surrounding changes in my self-esteem.

The pieces were all there. Yet the understanding was missing until I had the opportunity to put everything together with the help of a therapist. While some people might be able to achieve such an understanding more quickly on their own, the psychotherapy literature suggests that they are outliers. I learned the powerful lesson that comprehension grows through honest communication with others.

The root of the problem

The phenomenon is strange. We are often blind to some profound awareness for which all the necessary facts are present. If we reject the idea of thoughts being locked away in mysterious chambers of the brain, what else might block understanding? Motivation leads the list of things to study here. For example, we know feeling emotionally conflicted can impede understanding.

Start with the blind spots of history. The condition that created the 2008 recession was an explosion of high-risk mortgages for which the issuing entity passed off risk to another entity. The 1837 recession was founded on pushing slave labor to its limits and then selling ownership in the source of cotton’s production to investors. Few people wanted to examine these ugly roots while benefits accrued.

A useful analogy is putting a puzzle together. All the pieces sit there, but you await the moment of comprehension when you see how they fit together. I remember when that flash hit me in therapy. I have used my personal story here as the most compelling testament to this I can offer. Facing hard truths seems to be a big part of the lesson here. We usually have little motivation to face them.

This puzzle of motivation recalls Upton Sinclair’s line. He observed that it is hard to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on not understanding it. This describes our examples from history quite well. Investors had their fortunes riding on not understanding the problem. Political leaders had their reputations to protect. A failure to understand certain things was just part of the job.

Why did I never understand my personal dynamics related to self-esteem prior to therapy? When does the motivation to do so appear? Psychotherapy is a unique situation in which a non-judgmental, exploratory arrangement permits conversations that might lead to new understandings. For whatever reason, a person finds a moment of motivation to see connections that have been obscured.

The unconscious is an example of reification. It implies an objective reality or space for certain thoughts and memories. Pre-conscious better captures the realities described here. The facts are there to be seen and understood for those ready to comprehend. This applies broadly to life. What problems do you face? Are the facts there? Not making sense yet? The moment of comprehension may await you.

Ed Jones, PhD, is senior vice president for the Institute for Health and Productivity Management.

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