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The genius of Beck's method was not only its brevity and effectiveness, but its easily replicable methodology, which lent itself readily to clinical trials. Beck not only developed a systematic model of brief therapy based on the notion that distorted thinking sustains depression and anxiety, but also perfected an empirically testable clinical technique, which he himself immediately began testing and fine-tuning. It's hard to imagine that, whatever its intrinsic merits, CBT would have come as far as it has if not for Beck's own indefatigable research and astonishing productivity—20-odd books and 514 academic journal articles and still counting (he's written 474 papers since he was 50!).

The man behind what's been called the "Beckian revolution" is today a mild, courteous, 85-year-old gent with snow-white hair and a signature red bow tie. In his youth, he wasn't a firebrand bent on radically transforming the world of psychotherapy. He didn't even want to be a psychiatrist. A Yale medical student with a scientific bent, he decided to specialize in neurology because he liked its "precision." Obliged to take an unwanted rotation in psychiatry, he found himself swept up in the psychoanalytic enthusiasm taking hold in the school's psychiatric division.

He decided to train as an analyst, which meant getting himself analyzed, an experience he found thrilling. "It seemed to reveal whole worlds about which I had no intimate knowledge," he's said. Now a true believer in Freud, his first research mission was to prove scientifically that Freud was right. So, during the late '50s, with a National Institute of Mental Health grant under his belt, he set out to demonstrate empirically the correctness of psychoanalytic theories about depression.

One theory was that depression was actually unconscious hostility and aggression turned inward. To test this hypothesis, Beck examined his patients' dream material—Freud's royal road to the unconscious—which, according to the theory, should have been seething with repressed anger and destructive impulses. He found instead that depressed people's dreams were filled with the same feelings of defeat and victimization that characterized their conscious waking life. For Beck, this was an early hint that deep psychological truth wasn't always deeply buried. "What we see," he says, "is what we have."

Beck later got clues that the surface was itself very deep. In a famous Beckian set piece he's described many times, he recalls an early patient he saw who described to him her adventurous sex life in lurid detail. After an hour of particularly action-packed disclosures, he asked her how she felt. "Very anxious," she replied. When Beck probed further, she said that the reason she felt anxious was that she was afraid she was boring him! Surprised that after months of free association she'd never mentioned this, he asked her if she often thought she was boring. All the time, with everybody, him included, she replied.

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