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Universally Important Thoughts

1. Who am I? [Personal status exam]
• intelligence status
• personality status
• body image status

2. How do I compare with other people? [Status comparison]
• body image/looks
• intelligence/learning
• personality
• competence
• virility/femininity

3. What do other people think of me? [Projection]
• parents
• siblings
• extended family members
• friends
• peers
• other people of significance [teachers, etc.]

4. What do I think about others? [Social status exam]
[Same list]

5. What are my goals? [Direction/Distance status]
• life philosophy
• career
• long term
• short term
• implementation strategies

6. Why do I succeed/fail? [Attribution status]
• internal/unstable/changeable
• external/stable/unchangeable

7. Should I try? [Expectancy status]
• is the outcome worth it?
• do I have the skill?
• do I have the energy?

8. What are my prospects for the future? [Prediction]

9. How does this experience compare to my prior experiences?

It is up to the infant animal, … to create its own categories and to use them to make sense of, to construct a world – and it’s not just a world that the infant constructs, but its own world, a world constituted from the first by personal meaning and reference.

…a unique neuronal pattern of connections is created and then,…experience acts upon this pattern, modifying it by selectively strengthening or weakening connections between neuronal groups, or creating entirely new connections.

Thus experience itself is not passive, a matter of ‘impressions’ or ‘sense-data’, but active, and constructed by the organism from the start.

Every perception … is an act of creation.

Sacks – A New Vision of the Mind

A neonate faces the world with few mental structures with which to interpret stimuli. S/he randomly, although with some epigenetic rules, experiences the world of objects and events and has internal responses to these events. Some objects and events are pleasant and others are not. Using the rules of utility s/he associates one set of experiences with another. Gradually s/he begins to build mental contexts about experiences, grouping events and objects in what we might call ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘true’ or ‘false’. Some of these mental contexts and the thoughts, feelings and actions connected to them become so repeated and habitual, that the whole process becomes non-conscious.

Over time, these functional abstractions begin to leads to a hierarchy of causes and effects and some of this hierarchy becomes no longer conscious. Gradually the data of experience and events is coalesced into a naive, but powerful concept of self much of which is not conscious. Sometime between the ages of four [04] and seven [07] years of age, this concept turns the process upside down. Instead of continuing as a data driven ‘bottom’s up’ process, s/he now follows a theory driven ‘top down’ process in which successive events and experiences are measured against the theory, creating what is called a confirmation bias. If you hold a theory strongly and confidently, then your search for evidence will be dominated by events that confirm your theory. Such events will be more attractive and attention-getting.

The theory forms a mental context of ‘internal logic’ upon which future decisions are predicated. A mature set of theories tested over time, becomes a theory of self, which constitutes the essence of the person’s thoughts, feelings and attitudes; a personality. But again, much of this internal logic that underpins the personality, is not conscious. One is struck by the comparison to chaos theory and the concept of an ‘attractor’. A person seems though the organizing schemata, to create certain patterns over and over, in the same manner that a stream my eddy around a rock. The eddy is every changing and ever the same. Generally, speaking the person’s attitudes remain consistent even though new learning takes place every day and change takes place so gradually that it is hardly noticeable to those who know them best – Just as the stream may change course and gradually erode the rock. Someone meeting them again [either the stream or the person] may notice the difference immediately because they are comparing a long past memory to the present and this entails large differences. Each person then is an idiosyncratic entity who lives in a self-styled reality.

Thus a single word or action can have significantly different meaning to different people, even in the unlikely event of the same perception in the same circumstances, without the two persons even understanding that they have screened the information differently. If the event or experience is novel enough to one of the people to gain conscious attention as new information, it will either be rejected as not fitting the theory of self or the theory will be adapted in some manner to incorporate this new information. Finally, if the new information is powerful enough the theory of self may need to be abandoned. This creates a crisis for the individual as it is essentially the message: ‘I don’t know who I am any more!’. Unless a powerful directive force is available, the person may simply break down. The psychosis of assuming new personalities [Yeshua, Napoleon, etc.] is a most creative attempt to find ways to hold onto self by taking on a set of known characteristics, after the breakdown of the old self has occurred.

As with all theories some are more elegant than others. Elegance is a term that scientists use to describe a theory that is not only effective and useful; but also just ‘feels’ right, fit or gratifying. Thus if a person had a theory of self which was elegant, they would be able to predict and control future events with high levels of effectiveness and generally be considered by others to be a ‘serene’ person with few problems in living. In fact, some people with less elegant theories may be jealous of the ease at which these people live, since they themselves pall in comparison.

Aspects of elegance

One major variable in measuring the elegance of a theory of self is its degree of rigidity: Like the tree that breaks in the wind or the one which bends greatly before reaching the stress point, the flexibility of the theory is as important as its strength. If the theory is very powerful with no debatable issues or alternative explanations, a break is likely if major stress occurs. However, if the theory is flexible and provides many alternative explanations and many levels of abstraction, even a powerful contaminant is likely to be fairly quickly absorbed. On the other hand if the theory is so flexible that it has no strength, new information may scatter it regularly and completely, the person appearing gullible or manipulative, but without a root belief system.

Another variable in measuring the maturity of the Theory of Self is acceptance of error. If I can accept who I am while acknowledging flaws, I am probably more stable than if I cannot accept that I am flawed. An indicator might be the degree of the need to defend oneself. Thus the number, kinds and frequency of use of defense mechanisms, would identify a person who has difficulty accepting themselves as occasionally incompetent.

Who we are, is a relational consideration, since who I am is determined by and is determinant of who the other is. Placing oneself at the top or the bottom of humanity probably cannot be considered as elegant a theory, as the acceptance that some people are ‘better’ than me and some people are not. ‘Better’ being defined as being able to do some things that I cannot, better looks, more pleasing personality, in better shape, and so on. ‘Knowing one’s place’ has become politically inappropriate terminology; yet the person who ‘knows’ where s/he stands in relation to others and is accepting of that fact while still affirming him/herself, is demonstrating a facet of an elegant theory of self. If I consider myself to be perfect [godlike] or worthless, either of which is a practical impossibility, I am unlikely to find satisfaction in living. Specificity, in this sense, it is a form of rigidity and a problem. Understanding myself to be ‘generally’ within a range of others is more flexible than needing to be specifically better than or as good as ‘that person’ or on a certain social rank. More importantly, social rank should not be as important as to reach consciousness very often.

Another variable of elegance might be a concept of ‘continuous quality improvement’. Essentially, this means that I believe that no matter where I rank in relation to others, I can continuously improve. Those who feels very strongly about who they are, but do not take themselves seriously [in a way, a willingness to be somebody else] might be displaying a theory of self which is very stable. The indicator may be in the degree of openness to learning. Those who protect themselves from new ideas are likely to be more rigid than those who seek out new information no matter how uncomfortable it might be. Acceptance and consideration of new ideas is an important elegance factor. New ideas are the foundation of growth and change and it is progressive growth than is the elegance factor.

However, this sense of improvement cannot be a magical process [someday my prince will come], but an understanding that improvement will come because of my own efforts. Using effort is a difficult concept to address, since effort is not likely to be expended if I believe I am either perfect or worthless, since no amount of effort can create change in such pristine states. The expenditure of effort is almost contingent upon having a somewhat elegant theory of self, and yet it also the major force for changing an ‘ugly’ theory of self into a elegant one.

This would imply that the application of effort towards making change requires not only the recognition that the present theory is not working effectively, but also the hope that it can improve. “Optimism, the conviction that you can change, is a necessary first step in the process of all change” [Seligman – 1994]. Thus, a re-analysis of the theory must take place and the findings of error, or the need for change, which then must be accompanied by the hope [expectation] that things can improve. This implies movement and movement implies direction and direction implies goals. Identifying movement towards a goal, requires feedback. Any system based on feedback needs three kinds of information:

a) What is the desired state [the goal]? ;
b) What is the difference between the current state and the desired state [the error]?; and
c) What actions will reduce the difference between the current state and the goal state [the response]?

Such a feedback system then adjusts the response according to the error, to achieve the goal. We have discussed goal development elsewhere [Telos and Responsibility] and will not examine it thoroughly here, but we will repeat that telos gives a limited, specific reason for the sake of which we perform our actions. It causes a person to imagine every action to be purposeful, but it does not state an overriding purpose to action in general; that would be teleology or finalism. The idea of telos gives value to what happens by regarding each occurrence as having purpose. Telos gives events value. Thus a truly elegant theory of self has a clear and articulate meaning to existence.

These variables are probably not inclusive of all of the important forces which support an elegant theory of self, but they clearly are consequential. Yet the creation of a theory of self does not and cannot take place in isolation.

‘It seems that the human mind has first to construct forms independently before we can find them in things …knowledge cannot spring from experience alone, but only from a comparison of the inventions of the intellect with observed facts.’ –Albert Einstein [1949]

What this means is that if the person has not created a functional abstraction or mental representation, they cannot even think about a subject. Look at the picture below. Unless you have seen it before, you are unlikely to see all of the images that exist within it, no matter how hard you try. Most readers will see the Green Man, a bearded old man with leaves in his hair. It is very difficult to see anything else without some mental representation regarding what you are looking for. If I tell you there are two other people in the image, this may help, but probably not. If I suggest that there are two lovers kissing under a bough, many will begin to find evidence. Finally, if I tell you that they are dressed in ‘peasant garb, and both wear hats, you may just perceive the images.

The point is that the person’s theory of self cannot consist of functional abstractions that have never been represented. The very concept of self as competent in certain areas may be a foreign construct. The creation of hope, which is an essential ingredient of goal attainment, must often come from the outside. The hardened criminal, who has always viewed himself as a criminal, may not be able to shed this image without someone who believes that s/he can be a non-criminal and states that concept. Through the articulation of that belief and the implementation actions that support that belief, the functional abstraction of non-criminal self, becomes a possibility for the person who considers criminality a way of life. The same is true of the non-mentally ill self, or the self-sufficient self, or any other self that has not before been encountered. This is not to imply that naively believing in another person as competent will make it so. With criminals, this is often a good way to get manipulated and ‘taken’. But it does mean that we need to find ways to ‘seed’ the culture and the individual with positive images.

When a theory of self is not effective the person is generally unhappy with themselves and others and demonstrate many problems in living [inability to learn and follow instruction, drone like behavior, anxiety, fear, sadness and/or anger, etc. All of which leads to what can be called problems in living. While all people have some problems in living, when these rise to the level of noticeability by others, they often precipitate a reaction – urging the person to entertain social programs to change their lives or in the extreme coercing or controlling them into social programs.

“A social system tends to draw our attention to the very points at which attempts to intervene will fail.” Jay W. Forrester

Unfortunately, when people who have their own problems in living intervene with the lives of people with severe and persistent problems in living, the reaction is likely to draw the attention to the very point that will fail. It is clear that when people with severe problems go ‘out of control’, they may need to be controlled. Yet the very attempts to control those with criminal tendencies or ‘mental illness’ creates its own failure, since it so often reinforces and solidifies the very ‘theory of self’ which has resulted in the problems in living in the first place.

This is not to suggest that people who violate others should not be prohibited from such violation. But it does suggest that doing so without responding to their story about themselves and the way they tell that story is to miss the point entirely. Control deals with symptoms of the problems in living, but does not deal with the fundamental issues of the ‘theory of self’. And without a change in the ‘theory of self’ of the individual with such severe problems in living, society will always need to control. The fact that this is ineffective and inefficient should be of concern even if the ethical and moral issues are not.

Yet to change the theory of self is to change the theory of selves; for thou and I are absolutely interactive. Group theory of self is just as prone to a lack of elegance as personal theory. Such a theory is usually referred to as a culture. Dubin [1973] suggests that culture is best seen as a set of control mechanisms – plans, recipes, rules, instructions, which are the principal bases for the specificity of behavior and an essential condition for governing it. The ability to devise a system that provides for plans, recipes, rules, and instructions for prosocial skill performance shows promise of provoking a cultural evolution from present behaviors and their management to a new level of self-control.

Thus, professional policy makers would do well to listen to the stories that the broad culture and individual cultural segments tell, and determine whether they are giving the right message. This is of major importance even to the extent of the evolution of man, if the interaction between development of individuals and evolution is considered.

As related by Hillis, the clearest example of this interaction is known as the Baldwin effect, first described by the evolutionary biologist James Baldwin in 1896 and rediscovered by the computer scientist Geoffry Hinton almost a century later. The basic idea of the Baldwin effect is that when you combine evolution with development, evolution can happen faster: the adaptive processes of development can fix the flaws of an imperfect evolutionary design.

A bird that is born knowing how to do some of the steps will have an advantage over a bird that does not, since it will have fewer steps to learn, so it’s more likely to arrive at successful nest-building behavior. Each single step that the bird is born with contributes to the possibility of learning, and therefore is valuable in itself. Viewed this way, each individual mutation will be favored independently, so that nest-building behavior will result from steps that are added to the bird’s instinctual repertoire gradually, and in less time than it would take for a probabilistic fluke that produces the mutations all at once in a single individual. In effect, the fact that the bird can learn makes the evolution happen faster.

The Baldwin effect applies not just to learning but also to any adaptive mechanism in the development of the individual. Another effect that radically reduces the time required to develop a complex behavior is instruction. A human baby develops intelligence at least in part because it has other humans to learn from. Part of this learning is acquired by sheer imitation, and part through explicit instruction. Human language is a spectacular mechanism for transferring ideas from one mind to another, allowing us to accumulate useful knowledge and behavior over many generations at a rate that far outpaces biological evolution.

The ‘recipe’ for human intelligence, Hillis concludes, lies as much in human culture as it does in the human genome. If this is so, the information conveyed by a human culture is of vital importance. Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of cultural impact was articulated by Colin Turnbull in his book, The Mountain People, as reported by Drummond.

“Imagine a group of people who are always together. Their work totals about 30 hours each week. It is cooperative, proceeds at an easy pace, includes everyone and is accompanied by pleasant chatter. There is no distinction between labor, politics, homemaking and play. Children are free to go anywhere because everywhere they are watched, fed and taught as if every adult were their parent. There is much touching. Conflict is discussed until consensus is reached on what is best for everyone. There is no violence. When children fight, they are distracted by amusement or affection from an adult. People take only what they need, and what each needs is what they all need. They worship their environment.”

“Now imagine a group of people who have lost their humanity. There is no kindness, compassion or caring. Love does not exist. Sex, when it occurs, is as perfunctory and joyless as defecation. The only source of satisfaction is someone else’s misery. Children are abandoned at age three. The sick are beaten: the dead left unburied. There is no religion, no music, no art, no hope, no rage, no sadness. There is only boredom, bitterness, envy and suspicion.” [Drummond, 1980]

These are, of course, the same people separated by two generations. Their culture had collapsed under pressure by progress and the Ugandan government. Without their traditional culture or group theory of self, they began to shape a new theory of self based on their experiences of victimization and hopelessness, and then individuals gradually absorbed these cultural stories and incorporated these group experiences into individual stories that were ultimately confirmed by their own experiences. Even though the third generation had not experienced victimization, they took it as their own and found their stories of victimization then created behaviors that created a hopeless reality. Had the leaders and teachers told stories of opportunity in change; had they used the experience differently, would the individual outcomes be different? It certainly seems so.

What are the stories we tell in our culture? Are they of morality, heroes and high achievers or of victims, immorality and criminals? And if our stories, rituals and icons are not effective in creating individual stories and reinforcing individual experiences that are elegant creations of successful and serene human beings, what are we to do?

When we talk about the development of the human mind we are talking about processes of self-transformation: processes by which we turn ourselves into different beings. However, in stressing self-transformation we should never forget that this is not a solitary effort. We are dependent in the most crucial ways on the help of others. And others may hinder or constrain us also.

…The kinds of ‘coming to know’ that matter are better thought of not as changes in what we have but as changes in what we are. And it is even more important to recognize that the processes of coming to know transforms us. | Donaldson

In so far as we have the experience of choice, we take responsibility, says Donaldson. If what has been suggested in this paper is compatible with your own theory of self at least to the degree that it can be heard and understood, you have a choice. You can continue to promote a culture of profound pessimism, or promote stories of heroism, rising above the abuse excuse to achieve through merit, morals and effort. We can ‘seed’ the environment with positive internal attributions or causes: John succeeds or fails because of his own personal efforts, not because of abuse, persecution or prejudice or good parents, money and power. Yes, poverty can be diminishing, but “that which does not kill me, makes me strong” – Nietzsche. Some people achieve not despite adversity, but because of it.