You might say that psychotherapy really is one of the world’s most old-fashioned professions. No matter how many new and “innovative” models we devise, or how much we try to borrow legitimacy from the modern medical diagnostic system, our profession remains grounded in the oldest, most fundamental human practice of all—intimate, direct, person-to-person conversation. At least if you’re of this persuasion, the articles in this issue may come as a shock.
The digital technology revolution now underway may shatter not only our preconceptions about human psychology and connection, but our fondest ideas about the essence of our seemingly time-honored craft. In short, we may even come to ask ourselves an almost inconceivable question—is the personal therapeutic encounter really necessary for therapy to happen anymore? Do our clients even need to have real, live conversations with real, live therapists?
Our contributors reveal, in ways that were all quite stunning to me, the magnitude and vast social implications—for us and our profession—of this dizzyingly new psycho-digital world we’re entering. Marian Sandmaier, for example, describes the expanding universe of mental health apps for every conceivable presenting problem. Michael Greene’s piece on virtual reality (VR) reveals an aspect of digit-o-mania, which can be—depending on your point of view and the VR program—therapeutically helpful, head-spinning, or even downright creepy.
As of course you know (you do know, don’t you?), VR headsets allow people to enter entirely new environments with quite convincing sensory realism. With a therapist’s real-time help, a person afraid of flying might do a version of exposure therapy and actually “experience” being in a crowded airport, boarding a plane, taxiing, taking off, and flying—all at a pace controlled by therapist and client together.
Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and bestselling author of Alone Together, who studies the impact of technology on human psychology and society, was once a champion of the digital revolution. Now she’s become something of a counterrevolutionary, arguing, in essence, that our increasing dependence on our devices makes it harder for us to give our full attention to anybody or anything in the “real” world. We’re increasingly less able to connect with others—less able to talk to each other—as well as more alienated from our own bodily experience, and much lonelier.
In this very disorienting world, it comes as a relief to read Fred Wistow’s “Caught in a Web,” which captures in full the mixed wonder of pleasure, enlightenment, befuddlement, and addiction that constitutes our relationship to the internet. “The bottomless nature of it all has its deadening effect,” writes Wistow. “Each new breathlessly reported event thrust into insignificance as it’s breathlessly replaced by the next game-changing event. Eighty people killed by a truck? So yesterday. What about today? What about now? What’s happening now? Better yet, what’s happening tomorrow? Next week? In 2020?”
Wistow’s alternately horrifying and hilarious take may be the most genuinely therapeutic article in this whole issue. And for some of the digital immigrants among us, the fact that we can read it on real pages of a real magazine just makes it so much better. Maybe we’re not doomed to be preprogrammed bots after all.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.