What’s this ‘self’ we’re trying to help?

Read this thought-provoking piece on self-help in New York Magazine, which asks how self-help can work if we don’t yet fully understand what a ‘self’ is: what the mind is exactly, the nature of personality and character, who we are, what we are, how we operate in the world.

There’s much about the human brain (and by extension, mind) that we don’t know. We can’t fully explain why some people who struggle with an addiction to drugs for example fight it off successfully and remain sober for the rest of their lives, while other people – in spite of loving support and rehab and other life changes – relapse repeatedly. We can’t explain why, when faced with a 1,000-calorie dessert or a pack of cigarettes or a toxic but compelling person, we’re able to turn away sometimes, while other times we give in with seeming helplessness. What is this impulse towards self-destruction that persists even when we know that something is bad for us? What is it that drives our behavior at a “tipping point” when we can easily tilt towards one decision or another, harmful vs. beneficial?

Self-help guru cartoon

One thing I think is true is that the brain craves familiarity. It gets comfortable with certain modes of thought and habits, and it’s resistant to change. There can even be a kind of comfort in destructive behavior, thoughts and emotions, as long as they’re what we know; they’re our reality, and in some ways they feel right even when they’re horrible.

Much of the brain’s activity takes place beyond our awareness. For years and years our thoughts flow along familiar patterns; concepts and categories are fixed in place and cemented from the earliest moments of our life. When we fall back on what we already know and what we usually do, the brain doesn’t have to exert much effort.

So what pushes us to change? Knowing that we should change is not enough. We can spend hours reading books or combing through the Internet, where we will find a lot of information and ideas to contemplate. Some of that knowledge may be necessary for us to improve our lives. But it isn’t sufficient; furthermore, reading endlessly can serve as a procrastination tactic (keep reading the next website, and the one after that, and avoid actually doing anything). So what starts diverting our thoughts from their habitual channels? Even if you tell me that it’s necessary to impose new habits over the old ones – and that eventually those new, hopefully healthier habits will start to seem natural – where does that initial act of will come from that allows you to start checking your automatic thoughts and responses? Why does this will persist in some, in the face of repeated failure even, and why does it die away in others?

(Image links back to its source: Entrepremother blog.)

Is there anything you’d like to forget?

Using a “think/no-think” task and word pair associations (explanations are at the link), these scientists trained a group of study participants to block out part of an autobiographical memory each participant had chosen to forget.

The article doesn’t go into what kinds of memories the participants picked – they just had to be autobiographical. An example is given of an unpleasant childhood memory where you came to school in unfashionable clothes and an older kid made fun of you.

(Did any of the study participants pick memories that were more severe than that? Memories of events that could trigger PTSD?)

What exactly did ‘forgetting’ mean for the participants?
It seems they didn’t totally block out the memory and forget it ever happened. Instead they forgot some of the details. The memory also lost some of it’s “personal meaning” for them – for instance, even if a participant still remembers getting picked on for her clothes, and remembers the identity of the mean kid who picked on her, she may no longer associate the memory with feelings of personal inadequacy or self-consciousness.

A few questions to consider:

1) How long does this forgetting effect last?
(Turns out the scientists did a follow-up, and the write-up of the findings are pending.)

2) What does this kind of forgetting tell us about memory?
Our memories can have truth. But they’re also susceptible to embellishments and fabrications and personal biases. When study participants blocked out certain details, were these details more likely to be embellishments? (I don’t know if there’s a good way to find out.) If the memory lost some personal meaning for them, is it because a lot of the personal meaning came after the fact, imposed on the memory of the event by other cognitive processes? (Some people for instance are much more prone to linger over and give the worst possible interpretation to a bad memory and how it reflects on them as a person; each time they revisit a memory they might inflate the significance of the event and its negative impact.)

3) Do we want to forget?
In this study what’s induced in the participants isn’t genuine forgetting anyway; it sounds more like a memory getting dampened. I can think of situations where this kind of dampening and loss of some personal meaning might be desirable to people. But is it always desirable? When we tinker with our memories (which are already pretty vulnerable to our own non-conscious tinkering), we’re redefining ourselves. What if losing the personal meaning of certain negative memories makes us more likely to repeat a mistake, and to not learn or grow as much? The consequences aren’t always clear.

Does an attitude of self-affirmation help you notice your mistakes?

You're awesome image found on The Identity Specialist blog

At a first glance, the findings from the following neuroscience study seem counterintuitive. Does giving yourself a pat on the back help you notice your mistakes? Wouldn’t it make you more complacent? But it turns out that self-affirmation, as it’s defined in this study and others, amounts to more than telling yourself that you’re awesome. It’s about reminding yourself of who you are, what you most believe in and identify with.

Let’s have a look at the study.

38 undergraduates were asked to rank six different kinds of values (religious, social, etc.) by order of personal importance. The undergraduates who were randomly assigned to the ‘self-affirmation group’ were then asked to write why their most highly ranked value is important to them; those in the ‘non-affirmation group’ were asked to write why their most highly ranked value isn’t important to them. This request sets up the non-affirmation group to undermine themselves to some extent and betray what they feel is important to them.

After the writing exercise, subjects from both groups were run through a task that commonly measures executive functioning: the “go/no go” task.

… they were told to press a button whenever the letter M (the “go” stimulus) appeared on a screen; when the letter W (the “no-go” stimulus) appeared, they were supposed to refrain from pressing the button. To increase the sense of threat in the task, participants were given negative feedback (“Wrong!”) when they made a mistake.


During this task researchers recorded their brain activity with EEG. In the self-affirmation group (which performed better on the task than the non-affirmation group), subjects’ brain activity showed a stronger response to errors. Self-affirmation seemed to be associated with increased processing of errors.

People often get defensive about messing up; they hate having their mistakes pointed out to them and often prefer to live in blindness to their own errors. I think the tendency to get defensive is stronger in people who have a more incomplete or damaged sense of self; in that case they’d find the error especially threatening and would process it less deeply in order to protect themselves. Maybe in people who feel more steady, strong, and committed to who they are and what they believe in, an error isn’t such a threat to their sense of self and can be processed more deeply?

It’s also possible that the non-affirmation group was a bit discombobulated after having to write about why their most important belief really isn’t that important; it’s a strange request to make of someone, and the subjects might have thought that something was weird in the experiment and didn’t attend as much as they should have to the go/no-go task, or tried to figure out if there was something more complex going on than pressing buttons for the letter M vs. W. (Years ago in college when running a cognitive psych experiment I had a couple of subjects who seemed unusually tense and alert during the task, which involved naming pictures they saw on a computer screen. Afterwards they told me they kept waiting for a catch – that the task was too simple and that there must be some kind of trick. What the trick was, they weren’t sure, but they had tried to figure it out. Their reaction times were slower than average as a result, and some of the names they came up with for the pictures were odd.)

Fearing the mind – some thoughts on “The Politics of Experience”

My background in psychology hasn’t included readings on psychotherapy so I’ve started checking out books on the topic and just finished R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience.

A few points that jumped out at me from Laing’s book:

1) We (by which he mostly means European/North American people) live in a society that doesn’t truly admit to the existence of a complex “inner world” of dreams/imagination/fantasies/etc. that have any meaning (he wrote this book in the 1960s but there’s relevance to that position today).

(I put “inner world” in quotations, because the boundaries between what goes on in our heads and what’s out in the world is blurry – even our basic perceptions of the external world are filtered through our brains, and our thoughts and mental processes alter the way we perceive the world, what we attend to, what we remember, etc. Laing makes a similar point about there not being a sharp divide between internal and external.)

2) We view people who have been diagnosed with mental illness as lesser and as Others; mental health professionals do their best to subdue and drug them instead of explore and understand their perspective.

3) We can’t help people thrive if we don’t see them as human individuals enmeshed in relationships with others and interacting with society, its institutions and culture.

The terrifying mind

Our mental landscape can be a scary place. Beautiful too, sublime, but also unpredictable, intense, and terrifying.

Laing quotes people who went through – and ultimately emerged from – psychotic episodes where they felt they were traveling back in time, touching other dimensions and planes of existence, encountering core truths about life that were transcendent and overwhelming. Along with confronting visions and wonders, people can easily lose themselves in this mental realm, which seems limitless and is shot through with darkness and terrors as well.

Even mental activity that’s more mundane is awe-inspiring – for instance, everyday acts of creativity: filling a blank page with words or images. From where did they come? What’s inspiration and creativity really? Furthermore (and this is something Laing doesn’t really go into) so many of our basic mental processes occur beneath our awareness, guiding our decisions and actions. Laing speaks in general about people in modern society being alienated from who they are, but how do we come to know who we are and why we choose to act as we do when so much of our brain’s activity is by necessity unfolding beneath our notice? (I say “by necessity” because there’s only a little we can attend to and notice at any given time – meanwhile our brains are gathering, sorting, processing tons of information about the world and matching up current happenings with memories of prior events.) I’m not advocating for a position where we dismiss ourselves as unknowable and leave it at that; but what does it mean to “know yourself”?

Somehow, our brain’s activities give rise to “the mind” – consciousness, imagination, intuition, reveries, rationality, rationalizations, recollections, etc. It’s wondrous and mysterious, and mysteries can be terrifying.

Stamping out the mind

Laing rejected explanations of mental activity and ‘mental illness’ (a term he doesn’t want to use) that are concerned only with external behaviors or that see people as isolated units. These days individuals get reduced to products of cell activity or to animals in the thrall of evolutionary drives. Everything else is treated as so much noise or explained away glibly. I’m reading E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View now and there’s a passage that reminds me of this tendency to iron out the complexities of the mind and pretend its chaos is meaningless (a jangle of nerves):

Lucy faced the situation bravely, though, like most of us, she only faced the situation that encompassed her. She never gazed inwards. If at times strange images rose from the depths, she put them down to nerves… Once she had suffered from ‘things that came out of nothing and meant she didn’t know what’. Now Cecil had explained psychology to her one wet afternoon, and all the troubles of youth in an unknown world could be dismissed.

Psychology (and psychiatry) can be used, and have often been used, as a way to obscure self-knowledge and diminish people. Those classified as mentally ill are especially vulnerable to being treated in inhuman ways: drugged to the gills, incarcerated, subjected to abuse in the guise of treatment, and told they’re incapable of any valid perceptions of reality and meaningful experience. This approach to mental health is yet another way of dismissing the frightening complexity of the mind, rather than trying to understand and work with each individual as a person, which would take effort and a willingness to confront our vulnerability and our painful, puzzling, and beautiful experiences of life – or at the very least accept that they exist and aren’t meaningless.

If Laing sometimes writes as if he’s romanticizing psychotic episodes and their potential for exploring the mind, he’s balancing out other approaches that wipe away the mind’s messiness entirely, kill self-awareness, and diminish intimacy between people. One point he returns to over and again – and it’s worth making – is that when people do experience the world in ways classified as “mentally ill” (depending on the individual, he/she may not be actually ill, just labeled that way), they aren’t experiencing their mental illness in a vacuum. Their interpersonal relationships and the society they live in have an impact on the course of their illness, its manifestation, the potential for recovery and adapting to daily life, and whether or not they’re accepted as a person instead of an embarrassment and an upsetting reminder of how the mind dances beyond the reach of neat little labels and human control.

Social impact

An article I came across recently by Tanya Marie Luhrmann – Beyond the Brain – is well-worth reading and centers on the effects of social environment on people with schizophrenia, including the influence of other people’s attitudes and behavior. The bottom line is that the brain doesn’t operate in isolation; the same goes for the body as a whole, down to the activity in the most remote cells. We’re constantly responding to and interacting with our environments. While drugs can play a role in treatment of psychiatric illness, particularly of severe cases, drugs aren’t everything and don’t solve all problems. Same goes for looking at brain scans and pointing to patterns of brain activation. What do they tell me about what it’s like to be you? To think and dream and experience the world the way you do?

Luhrmann writes:

We are deeply social creatures. Our bodies constrain us, but our social interactions make us who we are.

We can’t fully know each other, but why pretend there’s nothing to know at all aside from relatively superficial qualities? What Laing seems to put forward in his book is a vision of psychotherapy where you aren’t trying to aggressively make people “normal” (whatever normal happens to be in a given society) but to be a guide to them, and to actually hear what they say about their experience of the world instead of dismissing it all as a mass of symptoms.

More unanswered questions

Laing’s book doesn’t really go into how these changes in treatment will be achieved practically (but he does suggest at one point that people who have gone through similar psychotic breaks or psychological experiences can help serve as guides and counselors).

As for his general view of a society in which people are alienated from themselves and from each other, it wasn’t clear what alternative he proposes: what’s an example of a society, in his view, that would promote better mental health and acceptance of different individual experiences? All societies are founded on compromises between individuals and agreements to abide by certain principles. What about personal relationships – what’s an example of a healthy parent-child relationship, for example? He doesn’t get into that; he says only that parents ‘murder’ various potentialities in their children and mold them to societal specifications. If he’s right, what’s to be done?

He points to instances in the past or in other cultures where individuals could explore alternate mental states (through drugs, fasting, etc.), but weren’t these people few in number? Sometimes their activities were sanctioned, sometimes they were revered, but many times they were considered dangerous or aberrant as well.

One person Laing writes about in this book who went through a psychotic episode and emerged from it intact said that the world became illuminated in new ways, even as he continued his day-to-day life with its dissembling and false faces. To what extent can a more transcendent experience of the world co-exist with the smaller, pettier interactions of daily life?

Laing asks at one point: If our society is so dysfunctional, why would we want to adapt to its ideas of normal mental functioning?