Aaron Beck, considered the Father of Cognitive Therapy, is an American psychiatrist and a professor emeritus at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He is President of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research that is directed by his daughter, Judith S. Beck, Ph.D.. He is noted for his research in psychotherapy, psychopathology, suicide, and psychometrics, and the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), one of the most widely used instruments for measuring depression severity. At age 87, the man is still publishing, building on his pioneering work on the cognitive model of depression. In his latest article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, he recalls his early work:
“Caught up with the contagion of the times, I was prompted to start something on my own. I was particularly intrigued by the paradox of depression. This disorder appeared to violate the time-honored canons of human nature: the self-preservation instinct, the maternal instinct, the sexual instinct, and the pleasure principle. All of these normal human yearnings were dulled or reversed. Even vital biological functions like eating or sleeping were attenuated. The leading causal theory of depression at the time was the notion of inverted hostility. This seemed a reasonable, logical explanation if translated into a need to suffer. The need to punish one’s self could account for the loss of pleasure, loss of libido, self-criticism, and suicidal wishes and would be triggered by guilt. I was drawn to conducting clinical research in depression because the field was wide open–and besides, I had a testable hypothesis. I decided at first to make a foray into the “deepest” level: the dreams of depressed patients. I expected to find signs of more hostility in the dream content of depressed patients than nondepressed patients, but they actually showed less hostility. I did observe, however, that the dreams of depressed patients contained the themes of loss, defeat, rejection, and abandonment, and the dreamer was represented as defective or diseased. At first I assumed the idea that the negative themes in the dream content expressed the need to punish one’s self (or “masochism”), but I was soon disabused of this notion. When encouraged to express hostility, my patients became more, not less, depressed. Further, in experiments, they reacted positively to success experiences and positive reinforcement when the “masochism” hypothesis predicted the opposite (summarized in Beck). Some revealing observations helped to provide the basis for the subsequent cognitive model of depression. I noted that the dream content contained the same themes as the patients’ conscious cognitions–their negative self-evaluations, expectancies, and memories–but in an exaggerated, more dramatic form. The depressive cognitions contained errors or distortions in the interpretations (or misinterpretations) of experience. What finally clinched the new model (for me) was our research finding that when the patients reappraised and corrected their misinterpretations, their depression started to lift and–in 10 or 12 sessions–would remit.” We owe a lot to Dr. Beck. His cognitive model of depression still dominates how I and most of my colleagues write treatment plans for persons suffering with depression. Our goal is to inspire and teach our clients to change their negative self-evaluations, correct distorted memories, and create an expectation of success. The only problem is depression is not that simple. Try as they might, many clients are able to recognize what they need to do, understand how their thoughts about themselves and their world need to change, are able to state those changes, and diligently practice them. But when they really need to be able to master their fate, when ruminative thoughts spiral downward into the depths of depression, their efforts quickly collapse and they succumb. So is the Cognitive Model of Depression wrong? No, I think it’s incomplete. There is the biomedical model of depression involving errant neurotransmitter levels treated by various anti-depressants. That discussion is beyond this article’s purpose. I’m more interested in what we as therapists can do differently in the counseling office. Of course we need to be sure a severely depressed client is referred for a medication review. But I want to know how we might better facilitate our clients attempts to master their mood. To this end, I will review my recent reading on the subject of emotion and argue to include emotion in a new Cognitive Theory.