I often think back on the courses I took when I was a university student to identify specific class sessions and experiences that had an influence in shaping me as a Christian psychologist. Recalling those experiences reminds me that God has been active in directing my path and encourages me to pass along some of the lessons I have learned to my own students. I would like to share with you an experience from one of those class sessions.
The professional seminar in motivation and emotion was one of my preferred graduate courses when I attended the University of Cincinnati in the mid 1980’s and Dr. William N. Dember was certainly on a short list of my favorite professors. Early in his career, Dr. Dember had co-authored an article on optimal complexity theory that challenged the current belief that all human behavior is motivated by a biological need. Instead, Dr. Dember’s theory asserted that simple curiosity could be a motivating need for humans. Indeed, this curiosity factor is often the driving force behind scientific research and its implementation has been well honed through the rigors of the scientific method. The particular class session of interest was dedicated to a critical review of the scientific method as it applied to a series of experiments summarized in a journal article titled “Mommy and I Are One.”
In this article, Silverman and Weinberger (1985) summarized a body of empirical research that focused on the “powerful wishes, typically unconscious, in many adults, for a state of oneness with another person” (p. 188). The authors concluded that numerous early studies had demonstrated that “activating the theme of oneness produced ameliorative effects for (relatively differentiated) schizophrenics that were not produced when other, even very similar, themes were activated” (p. 192). Subsequent studies had demonstrated that this same theme of oneness also lowered anxiety levels for normal people. This idea of oneness was initially administered subliminally with the phrase “mommy and I are one" while later studies changed the subliminal phrase to “we are one.” It was a fascinating cause and effect relationship: A “theme of oneness” (cause) was introduced to the subjects and the effect decreased the characteristic symptoms in schizophrenics and lowered anxiety levels in normal people. As was typical, Dr. Dember’s comments as we progressed through the research were enlightening; however, on this particular day, it was the comments he did not make that left a lasting impression. When we reached the final step of the scientific method, the one where the authors interpret their findings, Dr. Dember had nothing to say. When asked if he was going to provide an analysis of their interpretation he replied that he “just wanted to deal with the science on this occasion.”
With that comment from Dr. Dember, I think we all began our own critical analysis of this final step. When the authors interpreted what this relationship signified, they did so from a perspective consistent with their worldview. They concluded that the research supported the universal desire that one has for a symbiotic relationship with one’s mother, which has been characterized to the extreme of an unconscious longing to be back in the mother’s womb. The only logical connection between the empirically demonstrated cause and effect relationship and the author's subjective conclusion was the agreement that conclusion had with their specific worldview. The idea that a person has a universal desire to be one with their mother does not necessarily conflict with a Christian worldview and the notion that a person longs to be back in their mother's womb, or one with their mother, might not be as weird as it appears, only misdirected. As Christians, we hold that man has been alienated from, and longs to be reconciled to, his Creator. The means by which this reconciliation is accomplished is through Jesus Christ. More specifically, to be reconciled to God we must become part of the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27). This alienation from God creates a void in every human soul that exists apart from God and the subsequent drive toward “oneness” is directed toward oneness with Jesus Christ and the unity of all believers, not one’s mother. For those of us that are members of this body of believers, a Christian worldview interpretation of this research has more validity and could possibly provide valuable insights as we further explore the doctrines of reconciliation and unity.
When we approach the final step of the scientific method, we should do so with both caution and optimism, for any step has the potential to move us away from, or closer to, God. Discernment is necessary as we attempt to differentiate objective science from subjective interpretation. Psychology as a science is not an enemy of Christianity, however, some psychologists are. At the same time, this final step of the scientific method provides an opportunity for Christians interested in developing a Christian psychology, or at least a psychology that is more congruent with their Christian worldview. There exists a treasure-trove of empirical data in psychology that needs to be reinterpreted from a Christian perspective.
Dember, W. N., & Earl, R. W., (1957). Analysis of explaroatory, manipulatory, and curiosity behaviours. Psychological Review, 64, 91-96.
Silverman, L.H., & Weinberger J. (1985). Mommy and I are one. American Psychologist, 40 (12), 188-200.
Professor of Psychology / Psychology ChairCincinnati Christian University
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