A meeting of minds, on the mind, with Aaron Beck and Martin Seligman

Posted: March 17, 2014

For the last four years, two of the smartest men in town, both titans and respected leaders in their fields, have met monthly for lunch to talk about their work, their lives, and the books they are reading. When Aaron Beck (known to friends as "Tim") and Martin Seligman discuss their professional endeavors, the conversation centers on the mind and how to help people lead lives that are happy, productive and fulfilling.

Beck, 92, is a psychiatrist and the father of cognitive therapy, an approach to treating mental illness based on the premise that how you think determines how you feel. Seligman, 71, is a psychologist and the founder of positive psychology, which fosters mental health by cultivating optimism, gratitude, engagement, rewarding relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

Their monthly conversation is usually frank and wide-ranging, reminiscent of the dialogue in the 1981 movie My Dinner With Andre. On a recent Friday at Beck's Rittenhouse Square apartment, Beck talked about his new views of the cause of the depression, such as loss of attachment and status and disorders of focus, while Seligman spoke about his interest in prospection, the ability to think about the future, and when and how that may have originated.

In the early 1970s, Beck was a mentor to Seligman when the younger man spent two years studying psychiatry before returning to his m├ętier as an innovative professor of psychology. During their monthly lunch meetings, Beck and Seligman fertilize each other's perspectives, deepen each other's understanding, spar, pivot and challenge, as their searching exchanges weave new intellectual connections and stimulate surprising imaginative leaps.

Beck: I'm now working on two papers: One on depression, the other an updated theory of cognitive therapy.

In my early studies of depression, I was able to show a relationship between the loss of a parent in childhood and adult depression. However, not everybody who loses a parent becomes depressed. In fact, most people who lose a parent do not get depressed, so there is some vulnerability factor that must play a role.

In 2000, a group of British investigators showed that a particular genetic variation was involved in depression, and they later showed that if an individual had this polymorphism [a serotonin transporter gene with a short chain], and then had some kind of childhood trauma, they were more likely to get depressed than those who do not have the polymorphism or who did not have the childhood trauma.

Once an individual is vulnerable, there are three things that can either protect against depression or precipitate it: attachment to the group; personal attachment; and personal attributes.

Let's examine these in more detail. It's been shown experimentally and clinically that exclusion from the group is a big precipitant of depression. In some cases, it may simply be a loss of status, such as not getting a promotion you expected. If you're popular and you're invested in that, and you lose your popularity, that also may activate a depression, especially if you're vulnerable because of childhood events.

Personal attachments involve relationships with your spouse, partner, companion, relatives and friends. Marital problems, especially the threat of separation or divorce, can certainly precipitate depression.

Personal attributes refers to your skills, talents, abilities and character traits. What we've seen in older veterans who are depressed is a sense of loss of their ability to think, to do things that require skill, a feeling of the attenuation of various assets and the meanings attached to them.

If people experience loss in any of these areas, they may feel a diminished sense of status and well-being, and then devalue and blame themselves, which only rubs salt in the wound. If they've lost a personal relationship, they think it's because they're unlovable; if they've lost an occupational position, they think it's because they're really not as smart as they thought.

Another aspect of this is focus. People with psychiatric or psychological disorders tend to have a fixed focus. They get stuck on whatever symptom they have. Treatment entails refocusing on something else or re-orienting a person's values toward what you call PERMA [Positive emotion, Engagement, Rewarding Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment].

Seligman: I'm processing what you're saying through the lens of a paper I'm working on this week, on depression as a disorder of prospection - how you think about the future. In my opinion, the future is crucial. It drives the other things. Focus is a present-oriented notion, and what I want to know is how does focus extrapolate to the future?

Beck: Of course, the depressed person sees the future as bleak.

Seligman: How would loss of a parent affect prospection?

Beck: That's easy. They believe that all losses are irrevocable . . . .

Seligman: Yeah, the dead parent never comes back . . . .

Beck: . . . and this is going to extend indefinitely into the future, and apply to other losses as well.

Seligman: I think that's good. It really fits the loss of a parent. But let's take the people who lose a parent, particularly females before the age of 10 or 11, and don't become depressive. For me, it's not really helpful to invoke short telomeres [chromosome ends], to involve biology and genetic vulnerability, because those who don't succumb to depression must surmount it through cognition somehow.

Beck: Oh, biology works through cognition. This is something I left out that's critical. The people who have this polymorphism have a very high sensitivity to negative stimuli.

Seligman: Polymorphism works through cognition?

Beck: Yes, it works through cognition. What happens is that people pile up so many negative perceptions that they're lacking protective values and begin to believe that nothing they ever do is right.

Seligman: Imagine this possibility, Tim. You're vulnerable to depression for three reasons: polymorphism, your mother dying before the age of 14, and you're female. But then how do explain women in those circumstances who don't get depressed? The protective factor must be PERMA. If you're high on PERMA, it may reduce or eliminate your vulnerability.

Beck: The part of PERMA that's especially relevant would be relationships. If you have positive relationships, they can compensate for the loss of a parent.

Seligman: Yeah, yeah. From the point of view of thinking about depression as a prospective disorder, what PERMA does is militate against a negative view of the future.

Beck: Right, it attenuates it.

Seligman: I like the possibility that the buffers are positive and that fits our cardiovascular data. If you're looking at cardiovascular mortality as your dependent variable, the protective factors seem to be the PERMA-like factors.

Beck: What were the protective factors in your cardiovascular study?

Seligman: Engagement, positive emotion, meaning in life - these factors compensate to some extent for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, the conventional heart-disease risk factors.

Beck: That's interesting.

Seligman: I think it's even more likely that PERMA is a protective factor for depression. That means building PERMA early in vulnerable people.

Beck: I'm not disagreeing that PERMA can be preventative but I also see it as a treatment. Let me give you an example: I recently worked with a lawyer who didn't get a promotion he was expecting, and he was also having some marital problems. He was concerned his wife might leave him. So there's a loss of status and also a disruption of his relationship.

The major thing I did with him was to try to encourage him to get more satisfaction from what he was doing. At this point, he was not getting much satisfaction from dealing with his clients, because they weren't helping him with his self-esteem.

So I tried to get him off his self-esteem kick. I asked him, "Why did you go into the law?" Because he wanted to be able to do things for other people, he said, and he happened to be very skillful at that. So I tried to orient him away from thinking about himself and thinking about his status and toward projecting his interests onto something outside of himself, which was to help these people. So now he was building up relationships and finding some kind of meaning outside of himself, and those two things were very effective.

Seligman: Why does depression make us more self-centered? Why does it drive us to the "Big I" and away from the "we"?

Beck: When people get depressed, they're more like other people who are depressed than they are like their real selves.

Seligman: It's like alcoholism in that way. It sort of takes over, and your background personality is not there. What is it about depression that makes us turn inward rather than outward?

Beck: Well, I have this farfetched notion that has to do with the conservation of resources. A person has experienced a loss or defeat or something and in order to prevent further losses or defeats until they can build up new resources, they kind of turn into themselves and . . .

Seligman: Conserve.

Beck: Right. They don't expend any energy. They become inactive and they just think about themselves and they lose their bonds with other people because that uses up their internal resources. So they withdraw all of their investments in the outside world.

Seligman: It's interesting that Barbara Ehrenreich's criticism of positive psychology and building up hope is that it will make people bad citizens, because if you're happy, then you don't care about the rest of the world. But I think it's actually the other way around. When you're depressed, you don't care about the rest of the world.

Beck: That's right.

Seligman: She's 180 degrees mistaken, I think. Depressed people are not the Good Samaritan, charitable type . . .

Beck: No, they're not.

Seligman: People who have high well-being are, by and large, good citizens and Good Samaritans.

Beck: There have been a number of writers who have tried to make a virtue of depression . . .

Seligman: Melancholy, yeah. Good old melancholy. The source of creativity. I don't think melancholy's got a lot to be said for it.

Beck: I'd like to talk a little more about focus, the new idea I have that people get stuck on things that are counterproductive, that every psychological disorder is a disorder of focus.

Seligman: Focus is about the present, though, and that kind of bothers me.

Beck: OK, so it doesn't fit your theory.

Seligman: Right. For me, the past and the present have been overemphasized, so to have focus be a basic principle of psychopathology would be a problem for my prospective views.

Beck: Why can't you have both?

Seligman: Well, you can. Clearly, the past, present and future are all important.

Beck: People develop memory schemas and then they project from the memory schemas what the future is going to be like.

Seligman: Memory is very much about the future, so memory gets recombined to be an instrument for the future. I think that's pretty clear. But focus is a notion about the present, and I'm kind of puzzled about the present.

Beck: People are living in the present right now, even if they're thinking of the future right now.

Seligman: What is the present?

Beck: It's this instant, what's going on within me right at this moment.

Seligman: Why does the present matter?

Beck: The present is the only thing that really exists. The past is past, that no longer exists, and the future doesn't exist yet.

Seligman: The present is a funny notion.

Beck: Why do you have a problem with the present?

Seligman: Prospectiveness appeals to me because our phenomenology [structure of consciousness] is very often these simulations of possible futures. That's a large part of what goes through our heads. When you put people in the doughnut and do fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging, to measure brain activity], you get a default circuit in control groups, a sort of daydreaming about the future. That's why I think the future has been underestimated. I've been bothered about time generally and our tripartite division of time into past, present, and future. I think I know what the past is, and I think I know what future is, but I'm really not comfortable with the notion of present.

Beck: When you say "I know," that still is present. Right now, you know future and past. Five minutes from now, you may change your mind.

Seligman: It's really an entrenched notion, the present. There's something that really bothers me about the present.

Beck: Well, it seems like subjectively it bothers you, but -

Seligman: Well, it's related to subjectivity - the present and subjectivity are very similar notions. Subjectivity is active in the present.

Beck: But how's that any different?

Seligman: Well, I like notions of attention and focus but I don't like the background notion that it's the present. You've had your dialogues with the Dalai Lama, and I've had mine. During mine, I told him, "Your Holiness, I don't like this notion in Buddhism that it's all about the present. That's bothersome to me. We're creatures of the future and creatures of the past as well, and I think the present is overdone."

Beck: We may not be creatures of the present . . .

Seligman: I just wanted to say I'm uncomfortable about the notion of the present.

Beck: What puzzles me is why you're uncomfortable about it.

Seligman: Well, I can't go further with it, Tim, except to say that I think this is one of those notions that is very confusing.

Beck: OK. So tell me about your recent trip.

Seligman: We went to the Serengeti for two weeks, and what it got me thinking about was the evolution of prospection. We went to Olduvai Gorge [in northern Tanzania], the place where the Leakeys discovered Australopithecus and Homo erectus and Homo habilis. And so I began wondering: At what point in hominid and primate evolution did we become creatures of the future? I think what's so salient about what we call Homo sapiens is that we're really "Homo prospectus" - we're really in the future a lot of the time, and I think our human ancestors and their primate ancestors had glimpses of the future, but they didn't have a frontal cortex that's about envisioning the future.

So I was thinking: How would you find out when in hominid evolution prospection takes hold? One of the things that came to mind was agriculture, and the difference between gatherers - the best I can tell Homo erectus was a gatherer - and farmers. At what point did people plant seeds? That's kind of long-term prospection.

There's also a lot of primate evidence, involving measuring urinary cortisol in chimpanzees. Among chimpanzees, there are two kinds of endeavor that typically occupy the males. One is patrolling the territory, which often means getting into murderous fights with intruders. The other is hunting.

The urine of the chimpanzees about to go on a patrol is very high in cortisol, a stress hormone. Somehow, the chimpanzees anticipate the danger. By contrast, the cortisol in the urine of the hunter chimpanzees is low, because hunting isn't all that perilous. So clearly, the chimpanzees are cognizant about a future that's going to occur over the next few hours. At any rate, what I was thinking about in Africa was how would we know when in evolution big leaps in prospection occurred? When did we become creatures of the future?

Beck: Well, your example of agriculture is a good one for long-term planning. Whether the brain actually changed at that point I don't know.

Seligman: People date agriculture to 3000 B.C., and there are really no major skull changes then. Domestication of animals is another thing that is clearly about the future, I think. Do you remember Nick Humphrey's theory of the big brain?

Beck: No. Refresh my memory.

Seligman: Humphrey argues that the fossil record shows that cranial capacity jumped from about 600 cubic centimeters to about 1,200 cubic centimeters somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago. The question is why, and what Humphrey says is that the big brain was about solving social problems.

Beck: Right.

Seligman: You need a big brain to make social calculations. Humphrey contends that the social milieu is the cookie-cutter for big-brain thought. Relationships, trust, friendship, love - these are notions that are very prospective. That I trust you is not about the present. It's about, "If such and such were to occur, I know I could count on you."

Beck: But it's also about the present, too.

Seligman: Well, it has ramifications for the present, but where I was going was that the cookie-cutter for prospection is these long-term social relationships. So prospection in Homo sapiens occurs as the creature becomes very invested in long-term social connections, and notions like trust then become really important. Trust is the agriculture of relationships.

Beck: OK, so people are programmed to develop certain bonds in the present that will have implications for the future.

Seligman: Yeah.

Beck: Because we have to bond right now - we can't bond in the future.

Seligman: But I think the bonding is about the future.

Beck: Right, it's an extension of the present. If we get a good bond now, then it's more likely to persist.

Seligman: When we judge people's character, that's a thrust into the future. It's not just, "Is he good-looking and saying something funny now?" So many of our social judgments show us to be inexorable trait-makers, storytellers.

Beck: So I think what it's boiling down to is there's no question that prospectiveness is the truth, but is it the whole truth?

Seligman: Oh, certainly not. I'm arguing for it because I believe it's been underemphasized.

Beck: What about social insects?

Seligman: Oh, yeah.

Beck: None of them has a brain, and yet they build things for the future, they build their pyramids.

Seligman: They've got these inflexible roles. I think they probably do it by role without regard for the future. I'd be very surprised if insects are prospective.

Beck: They don't think of the future because they're incapable of thinking, but they are programmed to work toward the future.

Seligman: Yeah, yeah. So they do without cognitions of the future.

Beck: Right. Even plants. There is some good solid plant biology that shows plants do communicate, not in any magical way, but through pheromones and the transmission of hormones. So a pine tree can send a signal to an elm tree that there's an insect infestation going on.

Seligman: The more evolution was able to solve problems approximating the future, the better off the species would be. But we've got a particularly interesting way of dealing with the future, and that is we've got these mental simulations of possible futures. We rehearse them, we play them out, and that's what I think is really our advantage. Plants, insects, goldfish, all have mechanisms that help with the approximation of the future. Ours is really terrific.

Beck: Right, it's a highly sophisticated system, and an interesting notion, but I don't think most people actually do this. If they're going to ask the boss for a raise, they don't do multiple simulations. What they do is prepare their argument, and if the boss says no or is uninterested, they get angry. So they don't have adaptive techniques.

Seligman: So you're saying we're sort of like insects in that way: We've got an inflexible role. On the other hand, I would argue that human progress and creativity are about doing end-runs around the inflexible.

Beck: Yeah, you work up multiple perspectives, and I think people are capable of that. That's what we do in therapy.

Seligman: But then you've got Edison, who wasn't trying to improve the candle. Creativity is bound up in our ability to find new ways around old problems.

Beck: That's what I think creativity is - finding new perspectives that people haven't seen before.


Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com.

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