Cognitive Pearl #043 Shevat 16, 5775 February 5, 15

My own interest in cognitive therapy comes has many origins. Perhaps the strongest is my curiosity about reality and the universe. Well before my bar mitzvah I came across the celebrated book by Will Durant, The Story Of Philosophy. It was a huge book, especially for a pre-teen; and the closest I’ve ever gotten to reading it was when I was twelve. The details are a bit fuzzy; I do recall that Durant was speaking about the classical philosophers, like Aristotle and Plato. Everything that they had to say seemed true but left me wondering. How were they so certain? How did their ideas have anything to do with me?

It was those same kinds of questions that bothered me in high school, college, and graduate school classes on psychological theories. It was evident that the people behind these great ideas were great intellects. Yet their ideas seem to be either too vague or too rooted in specific cultural contexts and not especially applicable to people outside those cultures.

Ironically and accidentally it was my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Parnes, however who really pushed me towards cognitive therapy. His approach to Talmudic study was rigorously (maybe even violently) analytic. Textual understanding took second place to conceptual understanding.

Without intending to, Rav Parnes was introducing me to the world of epistemology, the understanding of how humans organize information. What comes first? How is x related to y? How does an object become valued? And so on.

For the first time in my life, it seemed like the right questions were being asked all in an environment that welcomed questions and confusions. All that mattered was the truth, or at least an idea that could cover all the bases with the most elegant economy. Now, a quarter century into my career as a psychotherapist, to a certain degree I use many of those same epistemological tools in my work. While therapy is certainly un-Talmudic in so many, many ways, what they share in common is the love of question. That’s because the quality of our lives has a lot more to do with the questions that we ask than the answers that we give.

So keep on asking, people!

Shabbat Shalom to all!