Human Change: The Unknown Frontier

[Key Words: change; human change processes; theories of change; mindfulness; neuroscience]


Everyone who is a Trekky fan remembers the opening to the 1960’s television extravaganza, Star Trek, in which the narrator boldly proclaims space as the final frontier. At the time that television show premiered, we had yet to land a man on the moon. In the 21st Century now, although far from finished, we have explored space in ways only imagined in the 1960’s. Likewise, from Sir Arthur Evans on, we have dug through the ages of the earth’s core to explore our archaeological and geological pasts. And with the adventurous spirit of Jacque Cousteau, we have descended to the the depths of the ocean and continue to explore that unknown region as well. I would like to pose a new possible region of exploration, one that some people may think we have already figured out. With the emergence of cognitive science, neuroscience, and technologies that aid in our understanding of  our neurological system, we are now at the edge of a new frontier: human change processes. Our previous simple formulas that sought to explain humans change no longer appear to apply, given the new data that the neurosciences and brain technologies provide. Human change processes, a notion emphasized in research done by Michael Mahoney,  now appear more complex than we ever thought possible. The repercussions felt by such technologies will resound throughout several fields, including not only neuroscience and neurology, but also the philosophy of mind/body, and the science of human change processes, specifically psychotherapy.

Seeking to Understand Change

What is change? How do people change? What exactly changes when people do change? I would like to claim that I’m clearly and succinctly about to answer all these questions in the essay that follows. But forgive me if I don’t make such a fool of myself. I believe strongly in the idea that personal change is spiritual and mysterious in many ways, and that although the sciences can help us come to grips with important matters regarding human change, they cannot illumine the whole process. Because human change processes are still a frontier for discovery, change is a phenomenon to explore for the sake of adventure, about which to make guesses just for the fun of it, and for which to pretend we know what we’re really talking about so as to impress ourselves. So I’m going to have some fun and throw out some ideas regarding change for the sake of exploration and focus on an emerging view of change that a variety of practitioners, from psychotherapists and pastors to yoga instructors and meditation trainers are discussing today – mindfulness training.

Psychotherapy and Change

Psychotherapy is often about some form of change. People contact therapists, generally, to alter something going on in their lives – i.e. to make changes. They may desire their environment or the world around them to change. They may want other people to change. Or they may hope that they can bring about some kind of change in themselves. So the word, change, is packed with melded perceptions, ambiguous meanings, and even mysterious connotations. When we delve into and seek to clarify exactly what we mean by change, suddenly we encounter just how difficult it is to describe this human experience. But whether or not clients realize it, when they enter a counseling room, personal change is the territory onto which they have stepped. Rarely do people’s environments and relationships change unless personal change occurs as well.

Obviously, physical change is the easiest phenomenon to recognize, but when someone says, Bill is a different man, rarely are they referring to anything physical. Perhaps Bill’s core values have changed. Maybe it’s his overall demeanor that’s different. Or it could be his emotional make up, or his modus operandi for engaging life. Somehow, it’s clear that Bill is not the same person he used to be. When people talk to Bill now, they are acutely aware that it is not the same Bill with whom they used to converse. But if Bill, indeed, has changed, what exactly is the difference? And how did such a difference come about?

Conceptualizations of Change

For centuries, philosophers, scientists, spiritualists, and religionists have theorized about the phenomenon and experience of human change. In the field of psychotherapy alone, we encounter a plethora of theories about what change is, and how personal change comes about. In this essay, I’m going to explore human change as a mystery, without any promise that I’m going to clarify much at all. Although I promise no clear-cut answers or foregone conclusions regarding change, I do recognize that one’s view of change is premised on one’s view of human nature. My personal bias or leaning is toward an understanding of change that proposes some type of spirit/mind/body interaction. I also believe that our lived-experience allows us to make a distinction between minor and major, or superficial and deep change. Such a distinction is theorized in a number of ways. Moreover, I believe we can understand change only in holistic terms.

Theories of Change: A Quick Overview: The First & Second Forces

Psychotherapy formally began in the 19th Century, although human beings have explored the notion of the psyche and spirit for centuries, dating back before Biblical and Greco-Roman times. Likewise, traditions in the East exploring the notion of change date back centuries. But what some have designated as the first two forces of psychotherapy, psychodynamic and behavioristic, had their beginnings in the 19th Century with the work of Sigmund Freud and Ivan Pavlov. For decades these two schools of therapy offered contrasting views of human nature and change. For the psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theorizers and practitioners, people must undergo deep intra-psychic restructuring for long-lasting change to occur. Another way to put it is that an individual’s personality must change although defining what is meant by personality is not an easy task. In contrast, the behaviorists, following Pavlov, and culminating in the 1950’s and 1960’s with the work of B.F. Skinner, sought to simplify the notion of change. If people change their behavior, then they have changed. Both of these schools of therapy generated methodologies and technologies they used to put to work their respective theories of change.

The Third Force

In the late 1950’s and throughout the 1960’s into the 1970’s, what was called the third force in psychology emerged, a school of thought called by a variety of names – phenomenological, Rogerian, existential, and humanistic among others. People such as Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, Irvin Yalom, Carl Rogers, and more recently, Emmy van Deurzen explicated the multifarious theoretical foundations of this school. Their understanding of human nature countered both the psychodynamic and behavioral schools, which led to their name of the third force. Emphases, such as human-beings-in-context, enduring suffering and conflict, values clarification, personal meaning, and self-actualization became some of the major themes of this school, with each theorist focusing on a particular theme or set of themes. This third force also emphasized the place of the human will, values, and spirituality in contrast with the more deterministic viewpoints of the first two schools. Human change came about when people explored who they are, who they wanted to be, and what values they decided to own for themselves. This school challenged people to decide for themselves what they valued, and how they wanted to live.

Evolutions and Permutations

The above description of the three forces of psychotherapy is a necessary brief and over-simplified one. There are a number of permutations in thought, evolution of ideas, and continued research in a variety of fields that have continued to address human change. The behaviorists school, for example, through research in cognitive science, cognitive psychology, and Artificial Intelligence evolved into the cognitive-behavioral school (CBT), emphasizing that human change involves a change in one’s belief structures. Major change comes about when people alter their core beliefs. CBT is a major force in the field today with prolific research in the treatment of psychological disorders. And CBT has evolved with the development of what is called the third wave of cognitive and behavioral approaches (touched upon below). Likewise, there are a variety of psychoanalytic and psychodynamic schools that have been influenced by neuroscience and studies in human development and attachment.

And So It Continues: The Fourth Force

Psychotherapy has now witnessed  the evolution of what can be considered a fourth force in psychology: the postmodern school. This school of thought, emerging from such philosophies as deconstruction, has sought to alter the power in therapy, giving prominence to the client. Its philosophical foundations also run counter to the medical model exercised in the psychoanalytic and cognitive behavioral schools. Its relationship to the DSM-V is cautious at best, antagonistic at worse. Although it runs counter to much of what has preceded it, we are seeing now an incorporation of postmodern thought in other schools. Lacan in psychoanalysis and the cognitive constructivism of Michael Mahoney are such two examples. The school is likewise multifarious, given rise to such approaches as constructivism, social constructionism, and narrative therapies. And so it continues.

Mindfulness as a Counter to Technologies of Change

Some Caution

All these schools of thought, individual theorists within each school, have their own take on human change, what it is, and how it occurs. Not only will I not enter the debates here, but also I’ve experienced that the debates can be rather divisive, fruitless, and ultimately pointless. Although I lean more toward the third force with some smatterings of the fourth, and some residuals of the first two, I do not believe any one school of thought has the corner on the truth. I tend to agree with Karl Popper – let’s become more enamored with what we don’t know rather than with what think we know. Returning to the beginning of this essay, for me the notion of human change, particularly revolutionary personal change, is a rather spiritual, mysterious, awe-inspiring experience. Having said that, I would like to simply throw out an idea for possible brainstorming and exploration. A view of change has emerged that, paradoxically, tends to focus less on trying to change, and more on learning to cope, which in some unquantified way ultimately leads to change.


As I stated above, my personal view of change, although far from clear in my own thinking, involves some type of spiritual/mental/physical interaction. I believe we are holistic beings, and we need a conceptualization of change that goes beyond mere techniques in therapy – technologies of change. Mindfulness approaches have emerged in the field of therapy from Eastern traditions, particularly Zen and other forms of Buddhism. (I am neither a Zen nor any form of Buddhist.) A mindfulness approach has presented itself as possible foundation on which all the schools of thought can rest. From my perspective, it is spiritual in nature. The question emerges: Might mindfulness be a unifying force to many of the school or therapy wars that the field has had to endure? I personally believe that mindfulness offers something valuable that can be integrated with a variety of conceptualizations of human nature. Mindfulness has already influenced all four forces on some level. Much of existential thought meshes well with mindfulness. Additionally, its impact has been felt in the cognitive-behavioral school in the form of what is called the third wave of that school, seen in the development of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT). Several postmodern approaches have sought to incorporate mindfulness along holistic lines of mind/body, drawing on the work of Daniel Siegel. Neuroscience has indicated that mindfulness practices can alter brain structure and increase healthy brain functioning. Once again, at the risk of over-simplifying, mindfulness approaches basically work with people to change their attitude and relationship to the conflicts and suffering they undergo. For me personally, unlike some of the Eastern thinking that holds suffering is illusionary, I believe suffering is very real and realistically and holistically painful, influencing spiritual, mental, and physical levels.

The Quick Fix

I also believe, however, we live in an age of the quick fix. We want a pill to make us feel better – NOW. We ask therapists, doctors, pastors, and politicians to end our suffering – ASAP. What mindfulness perspectives can possibly bring to the table is the importance of slowing down, reflecting, taking stock, and learning to cope with what we are experiencing – and if possible, to find meaning in such experiences. Such a view integrates with my Christian worldview, and I find it workable with the way I want to engage living. Particularly, third wave approaches, such as ACT, address the importance of clarifying values and making a commitment to align our lives with values we claim to hold. Again, what mindfulness brings to the table is a counter attitude that says, as we clarify who we are, what we believe, and how we want to live, then we will be more able to take on the real difficulties in life that come our way. Such difficulties are not necessarily resolved quickly, and we simply cannot avoid them. Mindfulness does not say to us to give in to the difficulties of life, but that when they come, not to avoid them in ways that prevent us from working through them.


The above discussion, for sure, is an over-simplication of the major forces and ideas I have sought to merely touch upon. There are numerous schools of thought, conceptualizations, and research from a variety of angles presently underway on human change. But the one thing I believe we do face in this culture is the idea of the quick fix. I, too, am susceptible and have succumbed to it too many times. We are an over-medicated society, which has raised healthcare in terms of the medical model to the level of an altar at which we grasp for hope and meaning. Perhaps it’s time to look at a different angle on how to work through and find meaning in the way we relate to and face our struggles in living. Perhaps a mindful way of living can help us do that. And as we find ways through our values to face our personal difficulties, maybe we will glean a little more understanding of the nature of what it takes to be human and experience personal change.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/May 14, 2014