July 20th, 2023

Spicy Psychology

I recently had a birthday. Not a major accomplishment, just surviving one rotation around the sun, but I bring it up to highlight that I’m aware of my age. I’m aware that as many people age, they struggle to accept the changing of the times, and as their neuroplasticity turns brittle they get angry at things they don’t understand. I’ve sat with this for a bit, and I feel confident that I’m not just being an old man yelling at clouds here, not yelling at kids to get off my lawn (I’m actually in the millennial bird-watching phase of my life, thank you very much). So, hopefully with some nuance, let’s look at the rise of the phrase “spicy psychology” and assorted off-shoots like “neurospicy” and talk about why they are unhelpful and hopefully are a cringe fad before too long.

So, look, full transparency here, psychology jargon changes often. Aspergers not being a thing anymore is the easiest example, but there’s a ton. As someone who refers back to research and books in the subject, even language from the early 2000s sounds soooooo painfully outdated. It’s a very fast moving field, as the technology available to study and understand the brain and body continues to get better at a very fast pace, the language that people use to describe themselves and their experience continues to change. I don’t really take issue with the updating of language, I think language is relative, my style of therapy is based on the idea that dialogue between two people allows for new understanding, because creating meaning is an ongoing process. So, I’m on board for language being changeable. It’s cool, it can be frustrating, whatever. The main issue with a phrase like “spicy psychology” is it creates a pocket of amateurism in a scientific field that isn’t beholden to any accountability. And look, even for that I have some allowances. Sometimes amateur sleuths solve a cold case, sometimes amateur engineers make an engine upgrade, sometimes amateurs do great things! Having a license or not shouldn’t limit progress. All for that. The issue is really that amateurs are carving out space to be amateurish about diagnosis. I’ve ranted on this topic in various places, too, but the DSM-V, our diagnostic manual, is deeply flawed! Hands down it has problems. That being said, we still need research and data to be backing up changes in the field. Our field has done a lot of work to be a better science. It’s not perfect (looking at you, licensed therapists doing shadow work), but it has improved a lot. And we’re at this weird point in history where having scientific integrity is wildly important, since famed high school graduate Joe Rogan is peddling conspiracy theory grifts and getting people killed, it actually is quite imperative that we maintain scientific integrity. We’re not just making shit up, and no, we can’t necessarily distill 6-8 years of schooling to explain why we know good research from bad research. 

Now, on the “neurospicy” side of terminology, I’m all for a big umbrella. I’m all for clients not being pathologized. But there is a lag between where our understanding (and, thus, a gap in the research) is at with how executive function diagnoses are qualified. It wasn’t that long ago that Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and ADHD could not be comorbid based on the way the diagnostic criteria was written (again, we’ve come a ways). But it can be really hard to head over into safe spaces online and not be bombarded with people self-diagnosing themselves with ASD, and worse, laying out “tests” or ways for other people to self-diagnose. And many (but not all) of these videos and content creators slip a line in their 30+ min videos that they are not doctors, but way too few of them are circling back to say things like “find a good, qualified professional to do an actual diagnosis.” “You probs have the ‘tism” is the take-home message from most of these videos. And that’s because a lot of symptoms look ubiquitous to humanity, that’s why being trained in how to do a differential diagnosis is important. A bad diagnosis holds people back, and a good diagnosis can be freeing and empowering. 

It’s great that we continue to normalize neurodiversity, and it’s also great to keep widening the language we use to continue to be more inclusive. It’s also great that people on the internet can create a safe, supportive community, and can help to inform research and the scientific community of where there are gaps of knowledge that need to be addressed. But filling those gaps with pop-psych jargon and nonsense makes things worse, and allows bad faith actors space to come in and spew harmful nonsense and rely on false equivalency. 

So, let’s clean it up. I don’t think we need to necessarily scrap the terms, but we need to curb the bad science and bad diagnosing. We need to make sure that the safe spaces we’re cultivating really hit the message about finding appropriate help and support from professionals.