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The Night I Left Psychology by Tom Shachtman

The Night I Left Psychology by Tom Shachtman

It was a long time ago, but the memory is indelible.

I had turned twenty-one as my final semester at Tufts University began. For the first time I'd made the Dean’s List, and was finishing up a Bachelor of Science degree in experimental psychology, after which I planned to pursue a doctorate in that field. I was dreaming of being a writer, but thought for sure I’d need a day job to support myself. I’d already had a bit of success with my writing, a musical comedy for which I’d written the book, music, and lyrics had been produced at Tufts; I’d also earned a few bucks for penning some songs for an MIT musical in which my Tufts lead was starring; and various stories and poems of mine had been published in the campus magazine, The Tuftonian.

I also had talked myself into a current, rather large in-school writing project. Having completed all the requirements of my major, I was taking courses of interest to me as a budding writer –Ancient Drama, Modern Drama, and one called Philosophy in Literature; in all of them we were studying the Orestes saga, and I had a 20-page paper due in each; but I’d convinced the profs in those three courses to let me write one 60-page paper and submit it for all three courses. They probably thought I was crazy to try, but they had given me the go-ahead.

Being a realist, I was pursuing a PhD track in my major, experimental psychology that I hoped would take me to a good-paying position. The field was called ‘experimental psychology’ to differentiate it from ‘clinical’ psychology by emphasizing that, unlike clinical, we conducted experiments and actually measured things, mostly behaviors; the field was more accurately known as ’behavioral psychology.’

At Tufts, being a psych major required, in addition to core psych courses, passing second-level electives in biology, chemistry, and physics -- the sort of advanced science courses primarily attended by pre-med students. By my senior year, I’d completed all of those. Actually, just then I was also enjoying some satisfaction in experimental psych, having designed and run an experiment on human beings that sought to assess the power of curiosity to affect learning – it had gotten me a pat on the back from Psi Chi, the national psych honor society.

It was a really neat experiment. I divided my volunteers into two groups and tested each member individually, giving to each one columns of figures to add, first horizontally and then vertically. While a ‘subject’ was performing that task, I distractedly fiddled with a numbered-tile square, one of those for which you use your thumbs to rearrange the tiles and get them into order. After several minutes had passed, when the individual test-taker finished the additions, I’d put aside my tile-puzzle to check the results. This moment was at the heart of my experiment: Knowing that the tile-puzzle was enticing yet too complicated to be completed during the brief interval of my checking the addition, with the group A subjects I would place the tile-puzzle within their reach and let them play with it while I did my checking. With the Group B subjects, I’d hide the puzzle during my checking. Then I gave to each subject the task of adding a second set of numbers in two directions. Those in Group A, itching to get back to playing with the numbered-tile puzzle, completed the second addition tasks faster and more accurately than those in Group B.

Ta-da! Curiosity was a detectable and measurable aid to learning! I hoped in grad school to do more experiments on the subject of curiosity.

To improve my chances of getting into a top graduate school, at the suggestion of my departmental advisor I had signed up for a graduate-level course in “physiological psychology.” The only other undergrad in the course, my lab partner, premed student Bill McPhee, later went on to become a neurosurgeon. This course was not going to be an easy A for me, but completing it would demonstrate my ability to deal with graduate-level material, such as was being offered at McGill University in Montreal, where I hoped to go for a master’s and a doctorate. The Tufts department had also helped me apply for a Woodrow Wilson fellowship to help pay for grad school. To my astonishment, I’d won one.

I was a psych major because as with most college students I was trying to find out who I was and might become, and psychology seemed a more modern way to do that than philosophy; but more specifically because of Dr. Bernard Harleston, who had enthralled me with the subject during his teaching of the intro course. Harleston was an exceptional man, a tall, thin, smart, witty Black who was a natural leader, as he shortly proved when he became departmental chairman and then dean at Tufts, and later, president of City College of New York. When I was his student he was around thirty but seemed older because of his confidence and maturity.

Harleston had come to psychology through chemistry and biology, and we psych students at Tufts were on a similar track. And so were those at McGill and at the few other experimental-psych enclaves in North America, all of us more-or-less followers of B. F. Skinner of Harvard. A 2002 poll would name Skinner as the most influential American psychologist of the 20th century. While back in college I admired Skinner’s studies of “operant conditioning” and his Walden II, a utopian novel about a behavioral psychologist’s paradise, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a full-court-press Skinnerian.

But most people in experimental psych then were, including my physiological-psych course instructor, William Mills. I didn’t realize how close a follower of Skinner Bill Mills was until he invited us to his home for an afternoon tea, and I saw that he and his wife were raising their infant in a Skinner box. It was a plexiglass enclosure that featured temperature control, humidity control, and a soft mesh at the bottom to allow urine and feces to drop to an underlying tray for easy removal; in the box, the baby was naked. The idea of using the sort of “operant conditioning” apparatus originally designed for training carrier pigeons for use with an infant appalled me. To my relief, Dr. and Mrs. Mills were not fully adhering to the Skinner program, since at intervals they gave in to their impulses to lift out and cuddle their baby.

I was similarly startled by the specifics of the Mills physiological-psych course, not so much by our use of med school textbooks – I remember one being about the eye – but because of the emphasis on surgical and chemical manipulation of lab animals. Bill McPhee, my lab partner, loved that aspect, but I wasn’t gung-ho for such things as implanting electrodes in rats’ brains. And then there was our major experiment sequence for the semester. It began with us surgically and chemically altering the brains and gonads of lab rats – injecting extra hormones into some males, castrating others, implanting male testes in some female rats, etc. Of course we had control groups of rats that were allowed to exist without our messing with their natural equipment. Later on in the semester we were to “sacrifice” the animals and microscopically examine their brains to discover and measure the effects of our chemical and physical manipulations.

Sessions of the physiological-psych course were held on Wednesday afternoons in a building at the far edge of campus, once a private home but since converted for use as laboratories and as housing for the department’s animals, primarily white mice, which everybody called lab rats. The animals were in cages in the basement, an area entered from the main floor through an old, internal wooden stairway.

Anti-authoritarianism had yet to reach American campuses back then. We male Tuftonians were clean-shaven, neatly-dressed, often wearing shirts and ties to class, and mostly naïve in terms of sexual experience. The Pill had only been on the market for a few years, and college students were not yet having sex with one another as freely as they would be just a few years later. As editor of the literary magazine I had gotten into delicious trouble publishing in one issue two other contributors’ work, a story and a poem, each with a naughty word in it, which had given the dean of women vapors. Publicly blasted by her for that, I got in a few pokes in the ribs of authority regarding her disproportionate objections. At that time, the official test of whether or not a publication was obscene was whether the U.S. Post Office would or would not deliver it. I sent a copy of the offending issue to myself through the U.S. mail, received it, and took it unopened to the offices of the Tufts campus newspaper, where I opened it. The paper wrote up the escapade, and soon everyone was laughing at the dean, not at me.

The life cycle of the white mouse/lab rat was known in such detail that the breeder could tell you the day and hour when a particular animal would become sexually mature. Since that date-of-maturity for our batch with the mixed-up gonads was rapidly approaching, Mills decreed that we would hold our next session in the evening, when the animals were the most sexually active, and for better observation, we would convene in the basement, where the animals’ cages were.

I was late for that class.

Coming down those rickety wooden stairs, I became aware of a rising noise level. When I reached the bottom step I caught sight of my fellow students, and Bill Mills, all with bottles of beer in hand and ties loosened or removed, talking loudly and collegially in the way that people do when slightly inebriated, and making semi-lewd remarks about the rabidly-mating caged subjects.

Drunk male grad students, encouraged by their prof, having a good time watching lab rats fuck.

Something was wrong with that picture, and I decided that it was me. I didn’t want to be in it. Ever! This was absolutely not what I should be doing for a career!

That dramatic moment ought to be the end of this tale. But our lives are not as neat as dramas. After my ‘aha!’ moment, I did not turn on my heel and stalk out of the lab, as a character in a play or novel would. I remained at the class, and almost certainly had a beer, since abstinence would have been conspicuous, and I must have taken notes, for I did pass the course and remained on the Dean’s List. My parents were very proud. ‘My son the doctor’ was an actual possibility!

But I didn’t want to do that any more, and so told my parents that I needed to take a year off to think things over. ‘Gap’ years were not then in style, but I got McGill and the Wilson Fellowship people to agree and, with money I’d amassed from working as a cabana boy on a beach-club near my home, I took my gap year.

In London, living in a bed-sitter, I researched in the British Library a full-length play, and in a garret in Paris near St. Germain-des-Près typed it out on a rented typewriter. I’d promised myself that if I judged the play good enough, I’d send it off to top drama schools, and if it earned me an acceptance I’d consider giving up my path to an experimental-psych PhD. I sent the play off, and Carnegie Tech offered me a scholarship, which decided me to go there.

In a stage play or movie, one might expect that the next scene would be the kid convincing his skeptical parents that he ought to give up the straight and narrow path for the dicey one.

That didn’t happen. My acceptance letters had come to my parents’ home while I was abroad, and at my request my father and mother had opened them, so they already knew about my wish to change directions. But whether they would agree to the switch of careers was still in question. My father, whose own youthful artistic yearnings had been stifled during the Depression by the need to work to support his mother and four younger siblings after his father flew the coop, had no problem with me trying to fulfill mine, and said so in a beautiful letter.

Slow dissolve, and a title card saying “Three years later.”

I was 25, had received my MFA from Carnegie Tech, had worked on documentaries at WQED in Pittsburgh while finishing up that degree, and obtained a contract with CBS News in New York to be a researcher-writer on its then-new, future-oriented documentary series, The 21st Century.

I was actually making some of my living from writing!

That would lead me to a ten-year career making “award-winning” documentaries, and then, at the age of 35, to my first non-fiction book contract, for The Day America Crashed, a rather documentary-ish book published on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1929 stock market crash.

Forty books would follow, enough of them for me to continually earn my keep by writing. Of course I had heartaches along the way, but on the whole, being able to make my way in life through my writing has been greatly satisfying.

Today, I’m still writing and enjoying it. Madville Press, which in 2020 brought out my experimental novel Memoir of the Minotaur, will publish my new novel, Echoes, or The Insistence of Memory, in July of 2023.

And what about psychology?

The capstone of that story is quite relevant to my writing. Back when I was working for CBS, on a trip to California, I arranged a visit to one of the main centers of the then very hot ‘human potential’ movement in psychology, WBSI, the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, in La Jolla. The staff was doing many things of interest to a future-oriented television series, and WBSI was also the professional home of Dr. Carl Rogers, the psychologist whose ‘client-centered’ therapy was at the heart of the human potential movement. A Rogers-trained therapist – as opposed to a Skinnerian behaviorist - never tried to ‘condition’ anyone’s actions, and was sometimes parodied as being too laid-back and accepting of what ‘clients’ told them, regardless of the circumstances. Rogers often had to deny that a Rogerian therapist, confronted with a patient about to jump out the window, would say to that person, “I hear you saying that you want to jump out the window,” rather than taking action to prevent a suicide.

Skinner and Rogers were not friends but were not enemies, and were often asked to engage in public debates. Back then, if you were questioning Skinnerian behaviorism as well as classical Freudian psychology – and we all were – then Carl Rogers was your man. His approach was also being popularized in such best-selling books by other psychologists as Games People Play and I’m Okay, You’re Okay.

I proposed to CBS, and then wrote and helped produce a documentary entitled Circle of Love, featuring a therapy session run by a pre-recorded audiotape, the brainchild of WBSI’s Betty Berzon, who had become a friend. She was the only therapist I ever met who had once been a patient in a mental institution. When she resolved the issue that earlier in her life had put her in one, by coming out as a lesbian in her late thirties, she blossomed into a leading feminist on the West Coast. Richard Farson, the president and founder of WBSI and a former Carl Rogers student, also acted friendly toward me, and during this period I asked Dick if I could meet his teacher.

Carl Rogers was then in his late sixties, gracious and approachable in the way that great teachers often are – something that I was learning about from interviewing Nobel science-prize winners for our CBS series. Their ability to talk to the uninitiated about what they were doing, and without talking down to you, is in my view what separated those first-tier scientists from the second-tier, who tend to be turf-protectors.

The half-hour that I spent alone with Carl Rogers was uplifting for me: here was a man clearly congruent with what he preached. I told him that I was on somewhat of a journey, having escaped Fred Skinner and the behaviorists – I recounted the stories about Bill Mills, and the infant in the Skinner box, and the mixing-up of rat gonads -- and of my becoming an admirer and embracer of the Rogers approach. In our discussion, he reaffirmed for me that his treatment theory was as much a philosophic path and a way of life as it was a therapy program.

That made immense sense to me then, and still does. It helped me understand, at a critical juncture in my life, that I hadn’t entirely left behavioral psychology behind – behavioral psychology had left me behind.

And I was ‘okay’ with that.

Tom Shachtman is the author of the forthcoming ECHOES, OR THE INSISTENCE OF MEMORY (Madville) and has written forty other books, including histories such as THE DAY AMERICA CRASHED, SKYSCRAPER DREAMS, ABSOLUTE ZERO AND THE CONQUEST OF COLD, and THE FOUNDING FORTUNES; social analyses such as RUMSPRINGA and THE INARTICULATE SOCIETY; children’s books such as GROWING UP MASAI; and novels such as THE MEMOIR OF THE MINOTAUR and a trilogy about sea-lions, BEACHMASTER, WAVEBENDER, and DRIFTWHISTLER, published in four languages. His award-winning documentaries have aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and BBC. He has taught writing at NYU and at Harvard Extension School, and lectured at Georgia Tech, the Library of Congress, Stanford, the Newberry Library, and other institutions.