Posing questions: How Socratic method can Help Reverse a Depressive Episode
Socratic method is a style of philosophical questioning, cooperative agreement, or continual systematic probing has been used for decades in educational settings to help students dig deeper and gain a better understanding of subject matter and improve critical thinking. Named after the Greek philosopher and teacher, Socrates, the approach is based on the practice of developing controlled, rigorously thoughtful dialogue. Socratic inquiry aims to teach critical thinking and thoughtful analysis of the core ideas underlying assumptions, beliefs and thought patterns.
There are six types of Socratic questions: questions for clarification, questions that probe assumptions, questions that probe reasons and evidence, questions about viewpoints and perspective, questions that probe implications and consequences, and questions about the questions. These categories were developed by Dr. Richard Paul, Director of Research and Professional Development at the Center for Critical Thinking.
The 6 types of Socratic questions
- Why did you say that?
- How does this relate to the topic?
- How can you disprove or verify your assumption?
Reason and Evidence
- Can you give an example?
- Why does that happen?
- What causes this to happen?
Implication and Consequences
- What are you implying?
- What consequences come with that assumption?
Perspective and Viewpoint
- What would be another way to look at it
- To what can this be compared?
Questions about the question
- Why did we ask this question?
- What does this mean?
Although Socratic inquiry is used mainly in educational settings, where the value is well-documented, psychiatrists have begun to implement the practice in therapy sessions to help treat patients who are suffering from depressive episodes. In research published in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy, co-authors Justin Braun and Daniel Strunk of Ohio State University studied the use of the Socratic questioning techniques in a clinical setting. The authors noted that patients with depression get caught in a negative thinking or rumination, and Socratic questioning works to help them to gain clarity as they separate truth from assumptions.
During the study, 55 patients took part in a 16-week cognitive behavioral therapy course for depression where they the participated in a series of activities including an initial survey and multiple sessions utilizing Socratic questioning. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a combination of psychotherapy and behavioral therapy that takes a hands-on approach to problem-solving. The goal of CBT is to help patients change their way of thinking to help combat the symptoms of their mental illness. By changing the way one thinks, one can change their behaviors as well. CBT is a short process, usually lasting about five to ten months, with weekly sessions usually lasting an hour. Therapists take the time to teach their patients tactics to change their thinking and behavior that they can then apply themselves throughout their day to day lives.
Socratic questioning, which aims to move the questioner to a state of ever-increasing clarity seemed to be a perfect technique to use as part of CBT. The systematic inquiry used in the study was developed to help patients who were stuck in negative patterns of thinking see their lives from new perspectives. The research also showed that the more accustomed to this kind of rigorous questioning of beliefs and assumptions the patients become, the greater the improvements in their depressive symptoms. In other words, the more patients used the Socratic method to help clarify their thinking and challenge negative beliefs, the better the outcomes.
The study showed substantial positive improvements in the patients who learned to employ this new technique to negative thoughts. Braun and Strunk plan to continue the study and hope that, as the practice progresses, patients will master the use of Socratic dialog themselves to combat the thinking that leads to depressive symptoms.
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