Something I realized a long time ago was that I wasn’t perfect and I never was going to be. Somewhere along the way, this truth about myself helped shape my approach to being a therapist and in turn a parent. If I could not be a perfect role model and use my own life as the reason why someone would be willing to listen to what I have to say, then what is the best alternative? Tell the truth. In this way, what I have to say may be worth listening to not because I said so, because that relies too much on my credibility or lack thereof. Not because I do it this way, because that would come up against the limits of my own experience which may not be the same as yours. Nor because it seems right to me, because as a human being I am full of unintentional but very real biases. Actually, a truth-based perspective is better because I don’t have to be a role model. In fact, sometimes my own shared “work in progress” experiences only reinforce that when I live authentically those truths are reinforced, and when I don’t it illustrates the point that living inauthentically often has its natural born consequences. Instead, if I can be convincing that what I have to say is truthful, then my own imperfections, limits, and biases don’t matter. Because it is the truth that matters.
So how does one discover a reliable truth? Let’s start with science, or more specifically scientific study. My medical background taught me that when given the opportunity, we should always practice evidence-based medicine. This means that what we do and advise to our patients is based on reliable data gathered from studies free of bias, of real people with similar problems who responded or didn’t respond to specific interventions. Ideally, this data is gathered in research studies that are double-blinded (which means that both the researcher and the subjects are unaware of the variables during the experiment), placebo controlled (which means that part of the study is to make no intervention at all), prospective (which means that data is gathered along the way as opposed to drawing conclusions while looking backwards), statistically significant (which means that the results are unlikely to be the result of pure chance), replicable (which means that other researchers conducting the same experiment get the same results), peer reviewed (which means that other researchers of similar expertise have examined the details of the study and agree that the work is valid and worthy of publication), and has relevancy (which means the results have to matter to real people in the real world). Scientific studies that meet all the above criteria are very reliable in approximating “truth” and studies that fall short of meeting all of the above are proportionally less reliable. So, valid scientific study is one way to learn truths, but it is not the only way.
When it comes to truths about people, another reliable way to discover truths is in our shared human experiences. What I mean by this is the discovery of what is the same in each of us, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic backgrounds, or even the era of your existence. Our common physical makeup, our common experiences, our common needs, our common feelings, our common responses. These discoveries are made through detailed observation. Sometimes this observation is also done in an academic or research setting, such as when a qualitative researcher like Brene Brown interviews thousands of people and finds that vulnerability is common to both those who experience shame as well as those who have courage. Sometimes this is discovered in the world of the Humanities, where writers, thinkers, artists, musicians and other creators touch upon something regarding our humanness that is universal, timeless, resonant and effective. Usually, in these circumstances, these creators are combining observation with the last avenue for truth finding, which is intuition.
Now intuition and reliable truths don’t readily seem to go hand in hand. This is because we don’t all have reliable intuitions. However, we all have the potential to have it, but it must be honed. In Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs, he relays an insight Steve gained after his time spent in India after dropping out of college:
“Coming back to America was, for me, much more of a cultural shock than going to India. The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.”
From a brain perspective, our intuition comes from the most sophisticated part of the human mind, our prefrontal cortex, rather than where we sometimes feel it, in our primitive gut. It is the functions and abilities of the prefrontal cortex that make us uniquely human. Intuition is the experience of all of our mental abilities, such as our reasoning, our emotions, our memories, our competencies, our self awareness, our awareness of others – in balance and perfectly integrated, giving us a sense of what is true. Like many aspects of our prefrontal cortex abilities, we have these capacities, but oftentimes they need to be developed. Intuition is no exception. But, even if our own intuition is not quite trustworthy just yet, truth can be discovered through the reliable intuition of others. Albert Einstein (who we usually imagine as relying on the strength of his intellect) said, “There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.”
So, reliable truths come to us by way of valid scientific research, our shared human experience, and the intuition of those who have honed it. Science is best for uncovering the details. Observation and experience give us a sense of the bigger picture. Intuition fills in the gaps in between. When scientific study, shared human experience, and intuition all arrive at the same conclusion, these types of truths are almost undeniable. In my next entry, I’ll talk about why a perspective based on truths is crucial for mental healthiness.