This personal statement was part of this student’s successful application to University of Oxford, University of Edinburgh, University of Durham, University of Reading and University of St Andrews for Psychology and Philosophy.
Two fundamental and existential questions, who we are and how can we live better, more fulfilling lives, drive my desire to study psychology and philosophy.
I understand philosophy as an inseparable guide to psychology, to understanding an individual’s experience, and to shaping their culture, behaviour and personality. I am particularly fascinated by the ‘Hard Problem’ of consciousness, introduced by Chalmers, that baffled many in stating that the problem of explaining qualia or ‘phenomenal experience’ is one that neuroscience’s current axioms, principles and physical quantities cannot fully address. It intrigues me because it addresses the “who we are?” question. The Hard Problem represents the boundary between experimental psychology and philosophy, the subjective and the objective. The fact that it still remains largely unanswered fuels my ambition to know more.
The philosophical perspectives of the Hard Problem are perplexing and varied; Dan Dennett, the philosopher, outrightly disputes the very existence of qualia, an extraordinary claim that I struggle to take seriously. Recent neuroscientific theory and research includes the integral information and the global neuronal workspace theories, which I find promising, but I do not think they fully answer Chalmer’s problem, which is why I think panpsychism, as radical as it may be, needs more serious consideration. I want to deepen my scientific knowledge in this area. I also want to contrast my current exposure to Eastern philosophies. In my understanding, the division between the Hindu Atma and the Buddhist Anatma schools of thought is strikingly similar to the materialist reductionist-dualist divide seen in modern consciousness studies. Though these schools of thought may not be the focus of the undergraduate course, I think my exposure to them allows me to approach consciousness and philosophy with an avant-garde approach.
When reading Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, I began to appreciate psychological disorders from both diagnostic and narrative angles, allowing me to see that knowledge of the psychological is incomplete if it only accounts for the externally observable. However, not everyone shares Sacks’ approach, as I discovered at the International Conference for Child and Adolescent Psychopathology in August 2018, I saw clinical psychologists present on ‘conduct disordered adolescents’ and was intrigued by how socially disregarded, at-risk teenager, in violent South African neighbourhoods, were medically diagnosed as ‘conduct disordered adolescents’ and effectively treated (creating mentally healthier and more socially responsible individuals).These clinical interventions and statistics showed me how psychology could be used practically, effectively and scientifically to build up a body of knowledge regarding something I thought was subjective whilst greatly improving the quality of life of the people concerned. However, this purely clinical analysis, though good for wider study, does not resonate with me as much as Sacks’ “romantic and scientific” approach.
Attending the conference, and reading S. J. Blakemore’s ‘Inventing Ourselves’, opened my eyes to how psychological awareness and support can greatly improve adolescent development in Malaysia – a conservative state largely oblivious to psychology. Our education system is created with scant regard for the developmental strengths and weaknesses of the young. Adolescents do not visit psychologists for fear of being socially ostracised, their parents are often complicit in this. I feel research is needed into the social psychology of Asian communities with respect to their cultural values and practices for it to integrate and be well-received. The potential for societal and personal well-being if psychological awareness and infrastructure increased here is immense; I hope my studies will be a catalyst for my own contributions to this cause.
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