What is Holistic Psychology?
by Daniel T. Moore, Ph.D.
Sometimes a term is used without fully understanding what is implied by the term. Some people may use the same term but have different meanings associated with the concept. This is often the case when using the term Holistic Psychology. Below is an attempt to define Holistic Psychology in the way that Your Family Clinic uses the term. Several implications of using this term and recommendations for scientific inquiry will also be presented.
A whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. This is especially true when dealing with living organisms. Something alive and moving is infinitively different than the same organism dead. No matter what you do to a dissected frog, it will never be the same as when that frog was alive. Much of science today is trying to break down complex phenomena into simplistic explanations. When this is done, like the frog, the essence of the whole is often lost.
Psychology, a branch of science, faces the same dilemma. Current Psychology is limited to the study of mind, thought, and behaviors that are observable, measurable and objective. Science often attempts to reduce phenomenon or examine parts of behavior as opposed to looking at the whole as the object of study. The fact that objects of scientific study are always greater than a sum of its parts is often ignored.
It is difficult at best to account for all the factors that influence human behaviors. If we could add up all these factors, it still may be different than considering the phenomenon as a whole. Holistic Psychology attempts to consider human behavior in relationship to the organism as a whole. In this attempt, it incorporates other scientific disciplines (e.g., nutrition, medicine, neuro-biology, neuro-chemistry). It even considers scientific inquiry considered outside the realm of traditional science. Spirituality, intuition, health, social and economical influences, and even birth order may be important considerations when observing human behavior.
Applied Holistic Psychology attempts to apply knowledge from a variety of disciplines to accomplish parsimonious delivery of effective services to accomplish the client’s goals. While it may never reach to goal of considering the individual as a whole, Holistic Psychology includes a variety of techniques and procedures that approximate that condition. It is believed that application of a holistic perspective will lead to better and more efficient forms of treatment than the way Psychology is practiced today.
Limitations to the current system of Psychology
Holistic Psychology probably developed as a reaction to the limitations of the current system of Psychology. The American Psychological Association is probably the foremost authority on the current practice of Psychology and influences psychological endeavors throughout the world. It sets the standards of practice, ethnical guidelines, and regulates the practice of Psychology. It also attempts to limit and restrict several areas related to the application of Holistic Psychology. The three major limitations of the current study of Psychology include: limited scope of study, forming biases to certain specialty areas within psychology, and a relatively slow dissemination of psychological discoveries. These three points will now be explained in further detail.
Limited Scope of Study. Psychology attempts to study phenomena that can be observed, measured, and quantified. There are many things that exist that are beyond our current ability to perceive, measure, and quantify. In reference to our frog analogy stated above, some of the “parts” that exist are not currently measurable given the status of today’s technology. When applied to human behavior, there currently exists unperceivable factors that may affect our mind, thought, behaviors, and intentions. To ignore them is to limit the effectiveness of psychology. To include them and to study them, theoretically should expand the effectiveness of Psychology.
To include them is the essence of Holistic Psychology. Holistic Psychology is a term that was developed to broaden the science to include looking at the whole of human behavior and to consider some “parts” that have been overlooked or deemed as outside the realm of scientific inquiry for Psychology. Holistic Psychology integrates the current knowledge of psychology with the theoretical aspects of psychology that are considered outside the mainstream of scientific study. Researchers of Holistic Psychology are not adverse to scientific inquiry, it is that holistic psychology researchers consider the limitations of our current methods and use creative methods that are designed to consider the human being as a whole, operating on a number of factors that interplay with each other. They also look for new methods that can quantify previously unmeasurable phenomena that went beyond detection.
For example, some scientists feel that there is a wide range of matter that comprises the electro-magnetic spectrum. They theorize that if this spectrum were to stretch across the United States from Los Angeles to New York, the amount of that spectrum that humans are able to see, hear, feel and measure would be the width of an arm chair. They postulate that there exists much of the electro-magnetic spectrum that is still undiscovered. How much of this undiscovered electro-magnetic spectrum effects human behavior is totally unknown. However, some scientists are exploring the role of electro-magnetic energies or subtle energies on human behavior. The American Psychological Association (APA) does not recognize the use of subtle energies as within the realm of Psychology. Psychologists cannot receive APA approved continuing education units if they attend a conference or workshop on the use of subtle energies (e.g., Emotional Freedom Technique). While the American Psychological Association does not officially recognize this body of research and application, Holistic Psychology does.
Holistic Psychology does not limit itself to the study of subtle energies. It seeks to utilize all areas of discovery that affects human behaviors and/or the mind. There may be factors of behavior that are currently undiscovered or have been ignored. These factors may be important to the healing of emotional and psychological problems.
For another example, under current Psychology, the placebo effect is viewed as a negative phenomenon. Studies of effectiveness are compared against a placebo. A researcher and/or practitioner utilizing principles of Holistic Psychology may choose to embrace the placebo effect, attempting to form models explaining the effect, or attempt to enhance the effect. In theory the practitioner could utilize the placebo effect to enhance the effectiveness of a currently demonstrated effective behavioral approach. The goal of such a practice would be to increase the effectiveness of that treatment approach to a wider variety of people and circumstances by maximizing the placebo phenomenon. This can be accomplished by expanding objects or phenomena to study, investigate and apply them for the betterment of the human condition.
Biases. There are several reasons why research is biased against the practice of Holistic Psychology. People who work in Universities have the time and resources to do research. Practitioners of psychology generally do not have the time and resources to do research. Often professors in an academic setting depend on the amount of research they do for their continual employment. For the advancement of alternative techniques, this is often more of an obstacle than a advantage because people tend to research what is in vogue so they can obtain grant money and have their research approved through the peer review system. Bias is created when only projects that are popular get funded. Funding sources are usually extremely limited in their scope of what is deemed worthy of funding. Currently, cognitive behavioral approaches appear to be easily funded. Even the “peer review” process is biased towards academia and the current theories that are popular at the time. Reviewers have preconceived attitudes about alternative approaches and can disdain an approach without knowing much about the technique.
For example, the leading expert in child attention deficit disorders makes negative comments about EEG neurofeedback for the treatment of ADHD. In spite of the many journal articles that show effectiveness of neurofeedback in ADHD treatment, he continues to state that the research is inadequate. When other scientists in the field are called upon to give evaluations about the merits of neurofeedback for the treatment of ADHD, they are biased about what they have read from the expert. Instead of taking the time to conduct experiments themselves, they do not. They simply parrot the biases of the expert. Even if they wanted to conduct the research, they would have a difficult time finding funding resources to do the work. If their work was completed and positive results obtained, they would have to overcome the biases of the reviewers who read the same statements from the expert in the field. Thus the advancement of neurofeedback techniques become delayed due to bias. Research could have been placed in making neurofeedback more effective and less time consuming or enhancing the techniques instead of trying to prove to bias people that it works. In the area of attention deficit disorders the current popular techniques are medication combined with cognitive behavioral approaches. There exists much money for research on these popular techniques. Almost no funding exists for research on alternative methods for ADHD treatment.
Too much of psychological research is influenced or biased by the medical model. The medical model is backed by pharmaceutical companies which is an industry with one of America’s highest profit margins. Even psychological journals display major advertisements by the pharmaceutical companies, a practice that was not common a decade ago. Many psychologists conduct their research in medical centers that are heavily funded by pharmaceutical companies. It could be argued that methods and treatments that are not in the best interest of pharmaceutical companies are lacking in representation of the spectrum of research currently being funded. To researchers of Holistic Psychology, this is a violation of ethics. Holistic Psychologists encourage medical research, but not at the expense of other research. Methods should be developed to broaden the types of research that receive funding.
This practice of funding often creates a double standard. Some APA members are stating that unproven techniques should not be used. If the technique has not been adequately researched, it should not be used on paying customers. Cognitive behavioral techniques and medical techniques have a strong research base. These areas of discipline wish that all theories and methods be held to this principle of research based treatment. Research is the foundation for getting many medications approved. However, many medicines used with children have not been approved by the FDA. Many medications that are commonly given to children have not been researched with children. Lack of research does not stop their use. Medications are even used for conditions that have not been researched in adults (e.g., Tenex to treat aggressiveness in children). Though this is a common practice, the same people condemn other professionals for using alternative techniques that have not been thoroughly researched. This hypocritical practice becomes ludicrous when one compares the possible side effects of medication with the possible side effects of benign alternative techniques (e.g., Emotional Freedom Technique to treat aggressiveness in children).
If we only utilized techniques that have been researched we assume that we have all the knowledge that we need to treat mental illness. If we look at our effect sizes, a statistical measure that helps determine treatment effectiveness, we can see that our treatments do not work for everyone. For example, antidepressant medications are not that much more effective than a placebo for treating depression. Yet individuals hooked on the medical model feels that anti- depressants combined with cognitive behavioral approaches is the only way to treat depression. Even with the combined psychotherapy, the effect size is not that great. Many people will still be depressed after the best researched treatment is given. Do we consider them hopeless or do we look for other methods to treat their depression. Holistic Psychology encourages an examination of the whole individual within the environment and treat the depression accordingly. This may necessitate the use of alternative treatments as well as traditional forms of therapy.
Most medical practitioners do not give up on depression if the first attempt fails. They will try a different type of antidepressant or even a different type of class of medication to treat the depression, even those who have yet to be “proven” effective for depression. They will also run tests to see if the thyroid could explain the depressive symptoms. They usually will not include alternative models of healing, but they look for other ways to treat if they were unsuccessful the first time. Holistic Psychologists stress the importance of going a little bit further to consider alternative models early in the treatment planning. Not having biases towards treatments allows more options for consideration and hopefully a more effective delivery system that will increase treatment effect sizes.
Slow dissemination of information. Too often the distribution of useful scientific information is too lengthy. When new information is developed, the information takes too much time to reach the practitioners who use the information with individuals. Significant advances often take years to be implemented. Easy access to the results of scientific inquiry is limited to memberships and payment of fees. These practices may have been necessary in the past, but with the current availability of information, these practices slow down the advancement of knowledge. The cost of disseminating information has greatly decreased yet membership fees remain expensive and usually outside the reach of many practitioners. Much of the information obtained through psychological research is kept out of the public domain. This limits the advancement of Psychology.
Applied Holistic Psychology
To further the advancement of Psychology, Holistic Psychology attempts to increase the scope of practice and study of psychology, attempts to cease the turf battles amongst practitioners, parsimoniously applies techniques from a variety of disciplines, and attempts to use modern techniques to disseminate knowledge and experiences related to Psychology.
Increasing the scope of practice and study. As mentioned previously, Holistic Psychology accepts all types of scientific endeavors. The aim of scientific inquiry is to learn truth. Truth is defined as the way things are, were, and are to come. Our understanding or belief about the truth does not change truth. Our understanding of truth may be limited or incomplete. Truth will continue to be as it is irregardless of our understanding of it. For example, the science of chemistry has changed over the last twenty years. Most of the periodic chart has remained the same. Chemistry was able to keep the part of the understanding that was truth (the periodic table) and has added more truth as the science has become more advanced. The science of chemistry will continue to change as more scientific discoveries are made. The truth of chemistry did not change, only our understanding of the truth changed.
Psychology is not as advanced as chemistry. There is much more that we do not know about human behavior than what we do know. We have few evidences of truth advanced as far as the periodic table. Even Neuropsychology is at its infant stage. While we probably have a good description of brain anatomy, the knowledge of how the brain functions continues to elude scientific inquiry. The exact nature of brain waves and their benefit to the body is not completely understood. The relationship of the myofascial system with the nervous system has not been adequately illuminated or explored. How some people report memories during near death experiences even when monitors display zero brain activity during the time of the memories is completely baffling. It is obvious that there is much that remains unexplored or unexplained.
Even though the amount of knowledge from a given scientific field is limited, Holistic Psychology attempts to apply the knowledge from many sources of scientific discovery. Nutritional sciences are often embraced within the realm of Holistic Psychology. Other sciences include medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture, and most of the other healing arts. Applied Holistic Psychologist often have to choose which sciences they consider important in their practice and which to exclude in their practice. Applied Holistic Psychologists often make referrals to a variety of healing art specialists.
Reduction of biases and turf battles. In an ideal world all theories and topics should have an equal chance at being studied. We feel we should work toward an ideal situation. Funding sources should broaden their perspectives to widen the scope of research. A relatively easy source of research is through Doctoral dissertations. Many of these dissertations go unfunded. Unfortunately, most doctoral students follow what is in vogue by the University or the chair of the student’s dissertation committee. Encouragement should be given to explore outcomes of alternative treatments as well as traditional treatments.
The results of much outcome research suggest that research outcomes are often biased or influenced by the theoretical orientation of the researcher. A cognitive behavioral researcher will often find that their methods are superior to the medical model while a medical researcher will often find that medicine is superior to a cognitive behavioral approach. When orientation of the researcher is factored out, outcome research consistently demonstrates that most treatment approaches are equally effective for most mental health disorders.
For this reason, practitioners of alternative techniques should be involved in the design of the research. For example, a study may be overly bias if a cognitive behavioral researcher designed an outcome study on the effects of Energy Freedom Technique (EFT) on phobia. The practitioner of EFT should design the study that would ensure the true treatment effects are being isolated and not washed out due to a faulty experimental design. Additional research should examine specific factors that are necessary for a particular method or technique to be successful. Research should include the use of several techniques simultaneously on individuals and compare the outcomes with clients who had some of the treatments excluded. This type of research has been successfully performed with medicine and cognitive behavioral treatments. These techniques can be applied to alternative techniques as well. Even when such research is conducted, the individuals applying the research results must consider that when you study parts of something, it may be far different than considering the whole. Discovering what parts of a treatment approach will always come short of studying that treatment approach in the context of the whole.
Parsimonious. Parsimony means that treatment is to be provided through the least restrictive method, the least evasive, the most conservative treatment, the treatment with the least amount of side effects, and the most cost effective. If a short behavioral treatment will accomplish the same objective as an extensive holistic procedure, then the short behavioral treatment would be preferred. A more intensive treatment should only be considered if less intensive treatments have failed and there is a clear theoretical rationale to use that treatment. For example, in the treatment of most children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder symptoms, medications should be employed after the Stein Model (a parenting approach that uses behavioral principles) has failed. There may be certain environmental conditions, that may make medications the first line of treatment (a child in an home that the parents are unwilling or unable to apply the Stein Model). If the child’s background demonstrates that the child has allergies and it is known that the child is much more hyperactive following the intake of a particular food, then a treatment model that accounts for allergies should be employed before using a parenting approach or prescribing stimulant medications. In the treatment of bipolar disorders with psychotic features, medication may need to be applied first until an alternative technique is identified that can be as responsive as medicine in controlling the manic symptoms. Efforts should then be made to reduce the amount of medication needed over time for that individual because of the severe long term side effects from mood stabilizing medications. Parsimony should be an important concept when applying treatment.
Dissemination of information. A better dissemination of research and information is currently utilized by the practitioners of electronic technology. With a few exceptions, we are currently under a free market economy for technology. While there exists a peer review process, this process does not significantly inhibit the change process for technological advancement. The process is driven by what works and what will be purchased by the consumer.
Similar models exist in Psychology but are not supported by the current establishment of psychology and are even seen in disdain. For example, Emotion Freedom Technique, EFT is viewed by American Psychological Association as not scientifically validated and unworthy of continuing education credits for Psychologists. Though the roots of EFT have existed for over thirty years, there continues to be a lack of research base for this technique. Still because of loss of sanction, many psychologists feel that their license is placed at risk for utilizing these techniques because these techniques could be viewed as falling outside the realm of a standard of practice. While they fear they are being unethical, it could be that it is unethical to continue to utilize techniques that are considered within the standard of practice that are less effective and more restrictive than the techniques offered by EFT and related theories. While their techniques have been shown effective on television programs, no formal research has been applied to their techniques. Advocates of EFT disseminate their findings though list serves, web sites, instructional CD videos and electronic newsletters. Their information can be found in the public domain and can be experienced by everyone.
This method of dissemination could work for other techniques and theories as well. A better way is to have a forum of what appears to be working. Psychologists could report on what they do in their practice. Communication via list serves can help stimulate this development. Effective communication among practitioners and researchers and better dissemination could advance Psychology as fast as technology.
Efforts should be made to reduce the amount of political wars and territorial battles that exist in the current therapeutic community. When these systems are developed, participants can report significant changes and techniques that are effective under particular circumstances. As specific modalities gain in usage, more formal types of research can be applied. The people from academia with the assistance of a practitioner could then validate what is being used in the therapy session. This is the way that real advances are made in Psychology. Frued, who was trained in research, developed psychological principles and applied them, then the research came later. Many of today’s academic researchers feel that the process should be reversed. They feel that only validated techniques should be applied in the clinical setting. This type of thinking only leads to stagnation and impedes creative discovery and development of better techniques. It assumes that our current knowledge is best and there is not much left to discover. Effective dissemination of useful information could significantly advance the practice of psychology and improve the human condition.
Summary and Conclusions
Holistic Psychology rejects the reductionist point of view about the human condition. Holistic Psychology accepts the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Theoretically there exist many factors about the human condition that are yet unmeasurable that influence our behaviors (e.g., subtle energies, components of the electro-magnetic spectrum, spirits, and faith). This phenomena goes beyond superstition and may have more of an impact on behavior than is currently held by most individuals in professional practice, academia and research.
Even though there is probably more we do not know about Psychology than what we do know, we should still apply the knowledge that we have. Not to do so would result in the continual emotional suffering of millions of people. However, we should apply our knowledge with an open mind, open to the possibility of better and more efficient methods. We should also look for methods that are comprehensive. Service delivery should be done in the most parsimonious manner.
To increase effectiveness and comprehensiveness, Holistic Psychology attempts to combine the knowledge of other health related sciences such as nutrition, medicine, psycho-immunology, etc. Holistic Psychology attempts to further the development and application of Psychology by developing methods for the study of such phenomena and the dissemination of information. Holistic Psychology does not reject the advances of scientific research or any theory but graciously incorporates such knowledge into practice.
Currently, the progress of Psychology is too slow. It is inhibited by bias, politics, protectionism and ineffective dissemination of information. It is hoped that by embracing principles of Holistic Psychology within research and practice, more effective advancements can occur that would significantly improve the condition of mankind.
The top photograph was by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash. We are grateful.
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