Psychology and the Prisoner of the Cave

Published 17 Feb 2017

In Plato’s allegory of the cave, prisoners inside a cave from were tied in such a way that they are unable to move their limbs and heads. This was the situation of the prisoners since childhood. The heads of all the prisoners were also tied in such a way that their gaze is permanently fixed in only one direction. That direction is the direction facing the cave wall. Several puppet objects would be held up by others from an elevated walkway every once in a while. The objects will cast shadows on the wall that the prisoners are facing. The shadows appear when the puppets are placed between the prisoners and the light coming from the fire from behind the prisoners. In effect, the images of the shadows formed on the wall in front of the prisoners and the sounds they hear whenever the images appear are thought of by the prisoners as the real objects.

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Indeed, the prisoners believed that the images they saw on the wall were the real objects. Since they were unable to turn their backs as they were tied, they were unable to see the ‘real’ objects from behind them. Every image and sound they hear would be retained in their memory as something real and is not a product of something else. Their thinking will be conditioned in such a way that the only real knowledge they know of are the ones that they have been seeing on the wall since their childhood.

Assume now that a prisoner is released from all those years of being tied down, giving him the freedom to move and look at all directions. Plato tells us that the freed prisoner will be blinded by the light coming from the sun outside the entrance of the cave. It will be a painful visual experience at first because the prisoner will have to adjust with the light from the sun after a while. The prisoner will realize that the images that he saw on the walls were not the real objects. He will learn that they were merely shadows of the ‘real’ objects that were causing those images. On the other hand, returning to the cave will only bring back the prisoner to the state of not knowing what is real. This is because his vision has already adjusted with the light from the sun. By returning to the cave, his vision will not be able to immediately cope with the cave’s darkness. (Kanazawa, 160)

The parable basically teaches the lesson that not everything that we immediately see and conceive of as knowledge is real knowledge. Rather, what we may comprehend at the beginning are the shadows of genuine knowledge. We may be unable to realize the real knowledge as we are ‘tied’ to a fixed gaze on the things that are immediately presented before our senses. Like the prisoner in the parable, it will take us freedom from imprisonment in our own caves where we grew familiar with in order for us to truly have genuine knowledge. It may hurt our senses and sensibility at first but the experience will be all worth it.

The same thing can also be said about psychology in general, or specifically in Piaget’s theory concerning the development stages of babies. Every learning stage of a baby or a child is a progressive process towards learning genuine knowledge of the real world. Obviously, the comparison between Piaget’s theory and Plato’s allegory rests on the idea that both tend to suggest a development in the life of individuals. Both tackle the necessity to expose one’s self to the real world and experience a life situated in a world where genuine knowledge abounds instead of false beliefs.

In Piaget’s theory, let us take for example a baby named Sara who is two and a half years old. Piaget tells us that the child is still under the so-called sensorimotor stage. At this part of the cognitive stage in the life of Sara, the child is expected to acquire the basic learning in life by the use of both reflex and motor actions from the body. Piaget also tells us that the child is expected to realize that she is entirely a individual distinct and separate from her surrounding environment. The various elements that are located within the child’s environment are learned by the child as objects that continue to exist even if the objects are hidden away from child’s sensory skills. It can be said that Sara is already able to recognize the fact that all of her friend’s toys are separate from her self. Eventually, she will be able to understand that her friend’s toys will always be physically existent even if she is not able to see or hold them.

Starting at age four, Sara may be able to better infer the mental states of her friends. The explanation is found on Piaget’s preoperational stage where the child is encouraged by her assumption that the people around her visualize every situation similar to her point of view. It can be said that Sara at the age of four will have an increase in her ability to understand that how her friends see the world is similar to how she sees that same world. (Reimer, Paolitto, and Hersh)

In essence, Piaget’s theory puts forward the idea that children can be able to identify for themselves who they are and which are the objects in the real world as opposed to mere beliefs and ideas from the imagination. This can also be said about Plato’s allegory of the cave which puts forward the idea that man is capable of acquiring genuine knowledge and telling the difference between the real world and the world of false beliefs.

Doubting if the future of psychology would be for better or for worse is only normal. As Descartes in his hyperbolic doubt would suggest, one can doubt everything except for one’s existence (Garber, 226). This stage of doubting can also be observed in Plato’s allegory of the cave, specifically the part where the prisoner is freed from imprisonment and begins to wonder at the light coming from the sun and the real objects that appear before him. It would appear that the freed prisoner will have doubts with his former beliefs as well as with the new knowledge about the real world that ay before him for the first time in his life. In contrast, providing the question of what would cast psychology onto the future is to simply exercise the method of doubting as something necessary. That is in order for us to realize the weight of the need for something which will truly make psychology improve upon its current state.

Like the freed prisoner in the allegory, to think about the future is to be open for changes such as the change of beliefs in order to give way for new and real knowledge. With that in mind, it is inescapable that the changes in the society will most certainly have an impact on the discipline of psychology. One of these many changes includes technology which has created more ways for humans to make the most of their resources and their knowledge. It can also be said that the psychological discipline has not been able to isolate itself from the influences of technology. As more and more technological advancements came into being, psychology has benefited from such progress in many ways, including the use of advanced tools which make detection of psychological ailments more accurately and efficiently with less manual labor.

For example, the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging or fMRI since the early 1990s has been used to record signals from the brain, or to detect the active areas of the brain during a given time or condition. fMRI has greatly improved the ways in which the activities inside the brain can be recorded without inflicting harm to the patient. It greatly lessened the risks of exposure to radiation caused mostly by CT scans. More recently, there are now several varieties where fRMI is used such as spinal fMRI, EEG-fMRI, event related fRMI, SEEP fRMI and Real-time fMRI to name a few. These technological developments were made possible through an acceptance of the new knowledge acquired in the discipline of psychology just like the freed prisoner in Plato’s allegory. The freed prisoner went out of the cave and dared to face the real world and learn new knowledge, and abandoning the false beliefs he grew up with in the cave so as to give way for genuine knowledge.

Like the prisoner acquiring more knowledge, the development of these advanced tools in psychology has also led the way for more psychological discoveries. Recall the more comprehensive studies nowadays in terms of certain psychological impairments such as autism, bulimia and anorexia, depression and fears or phobia. It can be said that as more technology becomes readily available, the more it becomes easier to detect ailments and learn more about them. As we get to learn more knowledge through technology, psychology will be more wide-ranging as compared to its earlier years. And perhaps as more technological tools become ready for use of human beings, more psychological ailments which may have been previously unknown will be discovered. It will provide the basic framework for more research and knowledge and more technologies.

In the future, psychology as a discipline will soar to even greater heights instead of plummeting down into a regress. It is inevitable as technologies of the future are swiftly being created in today’s world. That is part of the lessons that we can learn from Plato’ allegory of the cave: acquiring new knowledge by progressing from old and obsolete beliefs for a better and a more knowledgeable life.

Works Cited

  • Garber, Daniel. “Descartes and Method in 1637.” PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 2 (1988): 226.
  • Hayes, Bernadette C., Ian McAllister, and Donley T. Studlar. “Gender, Postmaterialism, and Feminism in Comparative Perspective.” International Political Science Review 21.4 (2000): 425.
  • Kanazawa, Satoshi. “Reading Shadows in Plato’s Cave Wall.” American Sociological Review 68.1 (2003): 160.
  • Reimer, J., D. P. Paolitto, and R. H. Hersh. “Piaget: A Conceptual Introduction to Kohlberg.” Promoting Moral Growth: From Piaget to Kohlberg. 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1990. 25.
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