In Search of Ourselves: A History of Psychology and the Mind

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‘Freud Exhibit’. Photo by régine debatty (creative commons license).


Beginning Monday May 9 at 14:15, BBC Radio 4 will be re-airing In Search of Ourselves: A History of Psychology and the Mind. Here, executive producer Alan Hall explains the motivation for the series, how it took shape, and why its subject matter continues to be relevant.


“Psychology is as old as the human race.  People have always sought to understand what makes us think, feel and act the way we do…”

So began our proposal to BBC Radio 4 in the spring of 2012 for a major series documenting the history of psychology.  In truth, at that point, we had little idea of where such a history might take us or how we’d manage the simultaneously broad and specialised areas of what is popularly understood by the term ‘psychology’.  But we sensed, from ideas percolating in the news agenda and within the culture generally, that the time was right: David Cameron’s Happiness Index, the armoury of psychological tactics evident in conflicts around the globe, consumers’ wising up to the techniques of advertisers, campaigners’ questioning of the power of the pharmaceutical industries in our health service and the burgeoning of interest in ‘talking cures’…


It very soon became apparent that we wouldn’t simply be addressing the twin foundations of psychology – experimental and clinical – but also psychoanalysis, therapy and counselling and of course the parallel development of psychiatry within medicine and in relation to the law.


We had twenty-five 15 minutes episodes to do it in, scheduled between the World At One and The Archers.


The series would be written and presented by Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC correspondent with a formidable capacity for processing, shaping and re-presenting vast swathes of specialised information.  He had also, latterly, studied Psychology and had qualifications in Applied Psychology (Counselling).  We also had in the team, Dr Lorna Stewart, an experimental psychologist with broadcast experience, and as series consultant, Prof Daniel Pick.  As producers, Sara Parker and I, served as ‘innocent ears’, filtering our awareness of various themes, myths and controversies through experience as programme-makers, dividing the series into manageable chunks, each of which had a ‘hook’ that would open a door onto significant moments, characters and developments.


Access was, broadly speaking, via popular culture – Woody Allen on Freudian analysis, recordings of CIA research into the biology of madness, clips from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Mental Cases’, examples of subliminal advertising…  Our reach was wide!  And our approach was always to remain conscious of the experience of the potential listener, finding points of resonance and recognition.  As a radio series intended for a general listenership, we hoped to make this history vivid, to lift the story from the pages of an encyclopaedia.


So, among numerous experts who were happy to share their (sometimes, drily academic) knowledge, we also talked with, for example, BF Skinner’s daughter Deborah about her part in her father’s notorious ‘Skinner Box’ experiment.  Elsewhere, we sourced an interview with Howard Dully who as a child had undergone a lobotomy and spoke about it movingly.  And Martin Sixsmith revisited the mental asylum to which his own mother had been committed.  Such testimony brought a powerful human dimension to the programmes, which when combined with the full palette available to the radio producer – firsthand accounts, expert opinion, archive tape, extracts from writings, location recordings, music, an authoritative script – helped make the subject as tangible as possible for listeners.


The Prime Minister’s Happiness Index might have evaporated in the years since we first mooted the series, but a number of issues – psychological warfare, the ‘wellbeing industry’, the de-stigmatisation of mental health – have risen in profile.  And, of course, people are as keen as ever to understand what makes us think, feel and act the way we do…


Alan Hall, Executive Producer

Falling Tree Productions


In Search of Ourselves: A History of Psychology and the Mind

BBC Radio 4, first broadcast 21 April-23 May 2014

Episode 1 will air Monday, 9 May 2016, at 14:15. See BBC Radio 4 listings for complete schedule.

Note: An episode guide can be found here. Some episodes directly discuss topics related to the Hidden Persuaders project. Below is a brief annotated list:

  1. High Anxieties [episodes 1-5 are introductory and trace the impact of Freud and competing ‘talking cures’]
  2. The Freudian Age
  3. It’s All About Sex
  4. Pavlov’s Bell
  5. Talking Cures?
  6. Lock ‘Em Up [6-10 focus on psychiatry]
  7. The Cuckoo’s Nest
  8. The Snake Pit [refers to CIA experiments]
  9. Sane in Insane Places
  10. Care in the Community
  11. In the Beginning [11 onwards trace the origins of experimental psychology]
  12. Brains and Brass Instruments
  13. The Mind Observes the Mind
  14. War [how war propels developments in the psy disciplines]
  15. We Do What We’re Told [refers to Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiment and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment]
  16. The Stages of Life
  17. DNA and Darwin
  18. Mapping the Brain
  19. Man, Machine and Memory
  20. The Problem of Consciousness
  21. The Criminal Mind [21-25 consider various applications of the psy sciences]
  22. Power and Persuasion [advertising and propaganda]
  23. Bedside Manners
  24. The Sex Factor
  25. The Happiness Project [a return to Prime Minister Cameron’s ambition for the Happiness Index]