4th April 2013: Barefoot in the Head; How the way we think, feel and behave produces mental and physical health by Prof Ray Miller


Name of speaker and subject:

Prof. Ray Miller, Psychologist

Title of talk:

What has Psychology ever done for us? (A story in three parts)
Part 2: Barefoot in the Head: How the way we think, feel and behave produces mental and physical health. Psychological therapies from the couch, through dogs and rats, to mindfulness and positive thinking.

Bullet points:

  • The distressing history of treating problems of mental health.
  • The growth of psychological models of mental well-being.
  • History and development of major psychological therapies.
  • The importance of mental well-being to physical and social health.
  • The growing demand for psychiatric and psychological treatments.
  • What is ‘normal’? Are we pathologising everyday distress?


Mental Illness, Mental Health, Psychological Distress. There is a long history of defining and treating the problems that attract these labels. Many early interventions, from Neolithic times onwards, concentrated on physical (or supernatural) causes and relieving or managing the symptoms. From trepanning to modern medication, the approach has been broadly biomedical.
The rise of Psychology, from the early 20th Century, offered a different approach. While acknowledging biomedical contributions, psychologists have explored ways in which attitudes, beliefs, emotions and behaviour might impact on mental wellbeing. From the Psychoanalysis of Freud, through Behavioural interpretations to Cognitive and Cognitive Behavioural models and onwards to approaches such as Mindfulness, Psychology has been providing interventions based on Bio-psycho-social interpretations.
But how do we decide what requires ‘treatment’? What is ‘normal’? There has been a rapid increase in treatments. The evidence is there in terms of huge increases in medication prescribing and a growing demand for psychological therapies.
Reliance is often placed on classification systems such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), shortly to appear in its 5th and ever burgeoning edition. But is there really evidence that mental ill health is increasing or are we at risk of pathologising normal distress such as unhappiness, bereavement and adolescent rebellion?

A few words about you and your passion:

I have been a psychologist for nearly 40 years. Most of that time has been spent as a professional psychologist in the field of healthcare (now retired) but much of the psychology that I used, and continue to use, is based on understanding some essential concepts that I acquired during my undergraduate years.
Psychology is more than just an academic topic or applied science, although it is certainly both of these. Psychology is a fundamental aspect of our daily lives, our interactions with others and with our environment. In that sense, we all have to be psychologists and, even without aiming to become experts, we can all benefit from a better understanding of some of its principles.
Don’t expect an in depth study of the topic. This will be a somewhat idiosyncratic taster to whet your appetite rather than to educate you. However, you will probably find at least some ideas that set you thinking and which may start you along the path of self-generated learning.

A few lines about the history of your subject:

Psychology, Philosophy and the urge to understand ourselves and our world have been around as long as there have been people. They are the springboard to Science and the very etymology of these terms can be traced back to Ancient Greece.
Modern Psychology, as an academic and scientific discipline, can probably be dated back to the late 19th century and the attempts of people like Wilhelm Wundt to formalise the study of personal experience. Theories of psychology have ranged from Freud’s model of the psyche, through Behaviourism and Learning Theory, Models of Cognition, Evolutionary Psychology and, most recently, the integration of Psychology with our emerging knowledge of neurology and biology.
It is a subject that has grown hugely in both its scope and understanding in the last 100 years or so. The British Psychological Society was founded in 1901 but few, if any, of its original members could have conceived of its development 110 years later.
It sometimes seems that the more we look into it, the less we actually know. It challenges many ‘common sense’ beliefs and sacred cows. It is political, social and, often, revolutionary. It raises questions about our attitudes and beliefs, our social structures and even about the notion of ‘self’. Where will it take us in the next 100 years? Who knows! But the journey will certainly be full of surprises.

Anything else you may want to say:

That’s all folks!