When two minds meet: Beck and Seligman on life, research and aging

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    Martin Seligman (left) and Aaron Beck (right) meet inside Beck's apartment about once a month (Elana Gordon/WHYY)

    Martin Seligman (left) and Aaron Beck (right) meet inside Beck's apartment about once a month (Elana Gordon/WHYY)

    For more than a decade, Aaron Beck and Martin Seligman have been meeting in Beck’s high-rise apartment located right in the center of the historic Rittenhouse neighborhood of Philadelphia.

    “Have I seen you since the last time I went to England?” Seligman asks Beck during their most recent meet-up.

    “No,” responds Beck.

    “Oh I’ve got a lot to report to you,” says Seligman.

    The two sit catty-corner to one another at a table near big windows. There’s a pitcher of water and light snacks.

    “Looks like there’s some peanut brittle here. Want something?” Seligman asks, while pouring a glass of water.

    “No, no thanks,” says Beck, who wears glasses, has on a cream colored button up sweater, and is in a wheelchair.

    Beck and Seligman are leaders in psychiatry and psychology respectively. Beck, who’s 94, is considered a father of cognitive therapy, an approach that’s widely used to treat depression and anxiety. Seligman, who’s 73, is largely known for developing positive psychology, a field that focuses on qualities like optimism and gratitude as ways to promote mental health.

    The two live in Philadelphia, where they have affiliations with the University of Pennsylvania. And for years, they’ve been getting together about once a month to exchange ideas.

    They call their ritual “a meeting of the minds.”

    Exchanging ideas  

    Over the course of their meeting, Beck and Seligman’s conversation meanders.

    “Then I thought about something I’ve really never measured before. This gets to what I wanted to ask you about,” says Seligman, filling Beck in on his recent projects abroad. “When teachers learn about resilience and positive psychology, they’re rejuvenated as teachers. They become more interesting, livelier, zesty and therefore more engage-able…So what they now want to do in the National Health Service is train the deliverer themselves in these techniques and then see if their patients get better and the health care expenditures lower. So, there looms the possibility then of using the kinds of things that you and I have done, in which the target is not the patients, but the target is the deliverers. So i wanted to ask, is this plausible? Is it worth the effort it would take to do this and the expense?”

    “Do you have some idea what structure you would set up for training the deliverers?” Beck asks.

    At times, their discussion takes a personal turn. Seligman’s daughter just got married. They even talk a little politics.

    “What are you making of Trump these days?” Seligman asks.

    “I kind of vary in how I analyze him,” says Beck.

    Yet the threads always seem to connect back to the fundamental core of what they’ve spent their entire lives exploring: the mind.

    “There were two people at a mental hospital by name of Kingdon and Turkington. They focused on the positive symptoms and they developed a good approach to delusions and hallucinations.” says Beck, who has taken a keen interest in developing better psychotherapeutic approaches to treating people with schizophrenia. He tells Seligman about the background of an approach he’s been focusing on.

    “What? Oh, I didn’t know about that,” says Seligman, leaning in when the soft-spoken Beck speaks.

    “The way they went about delusions was to look at misinterpretations of every day life,” explains Beck. “They work in that way, not directly attacking the delusions, but training the patients on looking for the evidence, understanding the cognitive techniques. However, when they got the sicker, chronic patients, even though they helped with the delusions, patients did not remit any faster than the control group, than the treatment as usual. So that was also one of the incentives for me to get try to get to this non responsive group to see if a different theory or approach would work.”

    Beck, who friends call Tim, is a trailblazer in cognitive therapy. It’s an approach generally built on the premise that how a person thinks can determine how he or she feels and even acts. It has been tested in controlled studies.

    “So until Tim came along, coming out of Freud, the basic belief about emotion was that what was real was this ocean of emotion. And that kind of drove the spray at the end of cognition,” explains Seligman. “And so cognition was driven by emotion. And Tim came along, and the contribution in a nutshell is, no no, cognition drives emotion. What you consciously think really matters. And it’s changeable.”

    Nowadays, Beck has been looking into how to apply this to people who have schizophrenia. He and his colleagues have been leading interventions in psychiatric hospitals.

    “From a human standpoint, this is a group of people who are totally segregated. They’re controlled. They’re like prisoners, and they don’t get better,” says Beck. “And so we constructed a therapy that we called recovery oriented cognitive therapy because it’s still based on the notion of dysfunctional attitudes, but the way you change the attitudes is to get the people to do normal things.”

    Seligman thinks what Beck is doing right now is his best work yet.

    Shaping perspectives

    The two men go way back. In the early 70s, Beck was a mentor to Seligman.

    But Seligman veered away from the traditional, clinical approach that focuses on treating the symptoms of an illness.

    “So about 20 years ago, I gave it up and started to work on the good life and happiness and what makes life worth living,” says Seligman.

    This is a core to Seligman’s positive psychology approach. He has written popular self-help books about it. He has developed and led trainings in schools around the world, and he has had contracts with the military.

    “So for me, happiness and well being are a lot more than just the absence of depression or anxiety or anger,” says Seligman. “The positive life is a very real, distinct matter. And Tim has spent his whole life thinking about as a psychiatrist, by definition, pathology and what’s wrong. I think about what’s right very often.”

    While the two have different frameworks, both say the’ve never gotten into real disagreements during these meetings. Beck admits that Seligman has influenced and even changed his approach over the course of these discussions.

    “My perspective was people are like a garden, and if the old garden is overrun with weeds, it’s very important to get the weeds out,” says Beck. “And once you’ve gotten them out then the flowers will blossom, they’ll just draw from the natural elements in the soil.”

    So, Beck thought, treating the symptoms of depression and anxiety would make people better.

    “Whereas I don’t think people are naturally happy or blossoming,” says Seligman. “I think that’s just as much a skill as not being crazy.”

    “Right,” says Beck. “But then partly as a result of my conversations with Marty, I shifted toward finding the people’s strengths. And if you build up their strengths and get them to do things that they enjoy and are meaningful to them, and set goals with them, then the symptoms start to disappear.”

    A deeper takeaway

    Even though the two use this space as a chance to challenge and develop their own ideas, Seligman, who at 73 is the younger one, says there’s an even bigger lesson to these meetings.

    “For me, meeting with Tim once a month to talk about our latest ideas is not only one of the great treats in life, but it’s a model for how to age,” says Seligman.

    Aaron Beck turns 95 this month. He makes it a point to regularly meet with friends, colleagues and students.

    “It keeps me going.” says Beck, whose vision has become impaired in older age. “I’m fairly limited in what I can do. I can’t read anymore, so I listen to books. And I can’t go to the movies or theater or opera or any of those things, so I make it up with intellectual stimulation.”

    “He’s a good listener and talker,” Seligman adds. “Tim’s also a great believer in the now and the here.”

    Wrapping up

    The two wrap up their discussion after about an hour.

    “So, I’m back the last week in July,” says Seligman.

    They plan their next date.

    “Oh, okay. Let’s see, would Wednesday work well for you?” Beck asks.

    Seligman gets up, then shares one more thought.

    “Have you listened to Maria Doria Russell’s novel about Doc Holliday?” Seligman asks.

    “No,” Beck responds.

    “I think you’d like it,” says Beck.

    They bid goodbye, and with that, they part, making mental notes, one would imagine, of where they hope to pick up when their minds meet again next.

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