…We need to make clear that today’s main paradigm for understanding the human life, the interplay of genetics and environment, eliminates something essential – the particularity you feel to be you. By accepting the idea that I am the effect of a subtle buffeting between hereditary and societal forces, I reduce myself to a result. James Hillman – the Soul’s Code.
Self is a mystical word of uncertain origin. Its meaning in Funk & Wagnall’s as a noun is: An individual known or considered as a subject of his own consciousness: anything considered as having a distinct personality. The same dictionary tells us that personality is: That which constitutes a person; also, that which distinguishes and characterizes a person; personal existence. We might say, therefore, that self is a reference to the personal existence of someone specific; a singular entity.
Most of us intuitively believe we have a self and that this self is in some way capable of ‘free will’. Some, with a metaphysical bent, contrast the self and the soul, or combine the self and the soul, thus making two non-definable entities into one. Self is in some way also connected to another non-definable concept of the ‘mind’. Finally, this concept of self in some way is directly connected to consciousness, another concept with little definition.
In regard to this singularity that is the self, we have several comments. First, we know that the self is made up of a variety of mental representations of thoughts, emotions and what are called ‘submodalities’.
Within each representational system, we make fine distinctions. Each sense can have different qualitative characteristics. Each emotion uses different submodalities.
- Visual submodalities: shape, color/black-and-white, movement, brightness/dimness, distance, location.
- Auditory submodalities: volume, tempo, pitch, frequency.
- Kinesthetic submodalities: temperature, pressure, texture, moisture, pain, pleasure, anticipation, curiosity.
These mental representations exist in mental contexts in the brain. Baar (A Theory of Consciousness, 1988) opines that every conscious event is shaped by a number of enduring unconscious systems which he call ‘contexts’. He suggests that we treat a context as a relatively enduring system that shapes conscious experience, access and control, without itself becoming conscious. When we have an experience, we judge that experience to be of some shape or color, bright or dark, near or far, have some volume, tempo, pitch or frequency, be hot or cold, have pressure or texture, be moist or dry, painful or pleasurable, create curiosity or anticipation and, based on these judgements about the quality of the experience, give it a valance or emotional status. This is something good, pleasing, etc. or not. Finally, this mixture of factors is given a symbolic representation, by which it can always be identified. Such labels can be specific [referring only to his single incident] or generic [referring to all incidents of this type]. With these labels we are able to convey a generally ambiguous, but definable bit of information to someone else.
For the person, this one context is then grouped with many other contexts of likeness or difference, which can be brought together in conscious thought. We can treat contexts as coalitions of unconscious specialized processors that are ‘already committed’ to a certain way of processing their information. For example: we have decided that this experience and others like it are unpleasant or damaging, and when processing information about the situation we will, after experiencing certain ‘sensations’ which support unpleasant experiences and forming certain facial expressions, etc., seek clues as to how to avoid or destroy it. Thus when an issue in conscious thought comes about, the brain can scan mental contexts to bring specific information to be considered and develop a ‘whole body’ experience. Ordinary words used to denote emotion and other processes of mental activity make only a crude fit to the models used by the brain. Thus to say we don’t like something is code for a whole series of factors about the thing’s representational, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic qualities, most of which we do not know consciously.
Part of the skill of the clinician is to help the person with problems in living bring these qualities into consciousness in order to reconsider them. This is usually done through eliciting nonconscious information whenever the person thinks that it is ‘obvious’ what is going on, but finds it extremely difficult to ‘put into words’. Thus, intuitive experiences are powerful opportunities to examine our reality. Short-term memory and related consciousness are very powerful tools in ‘debugging’ nonconscious contexts, and yet in practice they are very limited. A key measure of capacity lies in the fact that short-term memory can handle only about seven words or other symbols simultaneously, taking about one second to scan these symbols. We then forget most of the information within thirty seconds.
Yet we can use these conscious effects to select among the mental context options that are available to us in regard to a new experience. If two separate mental contexts include representation, emotional status, and submodalities that differ in regard to a similar event or experience, we can decide that we will think or act in one way as opposed to another. We can discerning subtle variations in situations and operate on meta levels – if I do this, you will think that, therefore, I will do something different entirely and then, you will think otherwise. This sophisticated act of deciding is what we intuitively call the self.
Wilson, [Consiliance, 1998] suggests that “the self in not an ineffable being living apart within the brain but is the key dramatic character of the various scenarios we run in our heads. A repository concept that the brain invents to localize the representation within the scenario”. Wilson goes on to state that “the self, an actor in a perpetually changing drama, lacks full command of its own actions. It does not make decisions solely by conscious, purely rational choice. Much of the computation in decision making is unconscious – strings dancing the puppet ego.” “The hidden preparation of mental activity gives the illusion of free will. We make decisions for reasons we often sense only vaguely, and seldom if ever understand fully. Ignorance of this kind is conceived by the conscious mind as uncertainty, to be resolved; hence freedom of choice is ensured. ‘Free will’, he concludes, is a side product of the illusion.
Language as a medium of ambiguity poses problems in communicating information. Much is left to the imagination of the other, and the other filters all information through his/her own mental contexts to arrive at a conclusion. Nonetheless, Wilson leaves open the question of the self because of a lack of definition. It appears, if I understand correctly, that Wilson conceives of the self that others believe in as a singularity that resides in a place within the brain. Ergo, the factors that he describes seem to diminish this concept of the self as such a singularity. But is that concept of the self, an appropriate one? And what exactly is the complex equivalent used by Wilson for ‘free will’. Wilson suggests that if, with the aid of science we knew all the hidden processes within the various mental contexts in detail, he would concede that we still could not be able to predict the individual’s decisions, but only because the active networks operates so quickly. He suggests that under these circumstances he may be able to predict the next millisecond, but he could not predict any further because ‘the cells are bombarded every instant by outside stimuli unknowable by human intelligence in advance. Any one of these events can entrain a cascade of microscopic episodes leading to new neural patterns.” Did he not just describe free will?
Is free will not the ability of the individual to adapt to the multitude of outside [and inside stimuli] in some unique way? And how is the response selected? By the self as supported and constrained by the infinite number of mental contexts which have been personally developed over time through a myriad of choices of submodalities, emotional valance and mental representations? And the choice can be reversed simply because in subtle ways the person intuits that you will predict A, and therefore will decide B, just to be contrary. What else is there to free will?
Just because there are no new pieces added to a hand to obtain a fist, doesn’t mean that the concept is invalid or irrelevant. A fist is a very different thing than a hand, and has very different implications. Is it science to say that the fist does not exist, simply because it is abstract?
It would seem that the complex equivalent of free will chosen by Wilson is impossible to attain, unless it is completely random. Yet complete randomness is a rare thing in the universe as chaos theory is beginning to demonstrate. Even the molecules of water rushing down a streambed are drawn to strange attractors that cause them to behave in relatively predetermined ways. Would Wilson suggest that these molecules are not ‘free’? If so, what is freedom? [I know, just another word for nothing left to lose.]
In similar fashion, the self is not only intuitive, it happens – a decision is made. “Because the individual mind cannot be fully known and predicted the self can go on passionately believing in its own free will” says Wilson. The self can also believe in itself. Certainly, from the perspective of Wilson, he is correct. However, I wonder whether he would suggest that a strange attractor of chaos theory exists. I know of no information that can describe a specific strange attractor as more than its function, but much information that indicates that it exists, and because it does, an order to chaos exists. Fractal Horizons describes an attractor as an object in state space to which trajectories are eventually attracted. A strange attractor is represented by an unpredictable trajectory where a minute difference in starting position of two initially adjacent points leads to totally uncorrelated positions later in time or in the mathematical iteration. The structure of these attractors is very complicated and often not well understood. Certainly not by most other and me lay people.
Chaos is irregular and unpredictable behavior of a deterministic nonlinear dynamical system caused by sensitivity to initial conditions. For example, every slight difference in a natural habitat may lead to completely different animal population ratios after several generations. Some physicists have referred to chaos as the seemingly paradoxical combination of randomness and structure in certain nonperiodic solutions of dynamical systems. Chaotic behavior sometimes can be defined by a simple formula.
In other places we have discussed the fact that each individual creates his/her own personality [the outward manifestation of the self which are driven by the coherency (or lack of it) of attitude or dispositions towards certain events or experiences] through selection of random events and experiences and the creation of patterns. We are pattern makers in the same manner as an attractor. We are also coherency maintainers – our thoughts, emotions and actions are coherent, not scattered. The development of self operates to provide order to a chaotic dynamical system. Could it be that the self is a strange attractor? And as such, a strange attractor is a singularity of sorts in that it is a unified concept that causes recurring pattern in each iteration.
These iteration patterns can be described as iterated function systems or random iteration algorithms. One potential outcome of such systems is fractals – objects [or sets of points, or curves, or patterns] that exhibit increasing detail with increasing magnification. If a piece of a fractal is suitably magnified to become of the same size as the whole, it should look like the whole, either exactly, or perhaps only after slight limited deformation. This is, on the surface, similar to a hologram. Fractals and chaos are connected because chaotic behavior often yields fractal patterns. Any attempts at defining fractals are bound to be incomplete.
Yet fractals are capable of producing or becoming holograms – a record of the interference pattern between two coherent beams of light. Each point within a diffuse hologram bears a compete code for the entire scene. Pietch, [Shufflebrain] explores the holographic mind. As a neurosurgeon, he used a scalpel as a tool to reduce the brain of animals to identify patterns. The critical issue he discovered was not where he made the wound but how much of the area he destroyed. This implied that the information was held in all parts of the brain, not in a singular part and suggested a holographic mind. As fragments of holograms became small from removing more and more of the brain, resolution is lost. As any signal carrier becomes very tiny, and thus very weak, ‘noise’ erodes the image. Noise has to do with the carrier, not the stored message. Holograms encode messages carried by waves; they encode information about a property of waves known as phase. To reconstruct phase is to regenerate a wave’s relative shape and thus recreate any message or image the original wave communicated to the recording or storage medium. Holism, as a generic doctrine, asserts that a universe as a whole cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts.
Phase is the essence of hologramic mind. Phase, is a sizeless entity – in the sense that we can’t measure or weigh it. We speak of phase in terms of angles or their equivalents, or in terms of time. And to create an angle, or to specify it, we need more than a single entity. Phase demands a reference, something to compare it with. Because phase is relative, we cannot treat it, or even conceptualize it, as an absolute.
Such an idea leads us back to the human mind as being a single unit, holistic in all aspects and not subject to separation or reduction. Thus the self, as the attractor of chaotic brain waves provides order and coherence out of random stimuli. This chaotic system is highly complex involving wave cascades that flow throughout the mind. The information is stored in phase throughout the brain. Does this make the self, self? It depends, I suppose, on whether you believe that the attractor is actually a thing, object or concept.
But wait, we have more complexity for there are other considerations as well. Hallowell [Orientations for the Self, 1971] points out that the concepts of self and culture are interdependent and suggests that one cannot exist without the other. Wilson agrees pointing out that “virtually all human behavior is transmitted by culture”. Wilson, however, goes on to state that “culture is created by the communal mind, and each mind in turn is the product of the genetically structured human brain. Genes and culture are therefore inseverably linked. But the linkage is flexible, to a degree still mostly unmeasured. The linkage is also tortuous: Genes prescribe epigenetic rules, which are the neural pathways and regularities in cognitive development by which the individual mind assembles itself. The mind grows from birth to death by absorbing parts of the existing culture available to it, with selection guided through epigenetic rules inherited by the individual brains.” Thus, when Wilson, the biologist connects the gene to the culture. He moves several orders down.
Hallowell, moves one order up, as he emphasizes the other direction. “While it has become commonplace to regard the self as a cultural product, and enquire as to the ‘environmental’ (cultural) factors that lead to the expression or inhibition of this or that aspect of the self, we must not forget the reverse perspective; that culture itself is a product of the self. Selves are constituted within culture, and culture is maintained by the community of selves”.
Hallowell goes on to note that self-awareness of the singular entity is necessary and basic to the successful performance of the many different roles that the individual has to adopt within society. In order for a culture to maintain itself its individual members must have some awareness of their social standing with respect to age, sex, hierarchies of social precedent, etc:
“If [they] were not aware of [their] roles they would not be in a position to appraise their own conduct in terms of traditional values and social sanctions.” And if there was not coherency to the self, each role could be inconsistent with all other roles, except as delimited by the cultural expectation.
Thus, self-awareness is at once both a distinctive and necessary component of human life. We must assume, says Hallowell, that the functioning of any human society is inconceivable without self-awareness, reinforced and constituted by traditional beliefs about the nature of the self. While there are genetic rules that must be followed, the self as an entity creates not only a singularity, but also a culture within which the singularity exists. Yet, even this is not complex enough to satisfy nature.
When we return to the individual order, and begin to examine what a personal existence is made up of in a psychological sense, we do not find a singularity, although we generally find coherence. Personalities tend to be coherent except in the most unusual of circumstances. It is interesting to note that in extreme and repeated crises, the self sometimes creates another self who is better able to handle the situation. When we experience a ‘split personality”, we are awed by the coherence of each one. In fact, two personalities contained in a single person makes the concept of ‘self’ quite uncertain, but very interesting – two attractors in the same chaotic system. Only as we are able to break down the individual personalities and make them coherent in combination do we, on the outside, sense the ‘self’ or personal existence of the individual. But internally, persons experience each ‘self’ as a self, coherent in all aspects.
The idea of a ‘split personality’ is difficult to accept, yet in normal experience we can point to every ambivalence as a personality split: one part of the self wants A while the other wants B as two nonconscious mental contexts are catapulted into consciousness to compete. In fact, it is relatively easy to think of one’s self as having ‘parts’. Ask the question “are you competent?”. And, unless you are supremely confident or supremely negative, you are likely to need to explore the question – competent in what? For most of us are neither competent nor incompetent, except in narrow components of life. In fact, our level of competency in some areas of life may be mood dependent – if we feel in the mood we are rather competent, but if not, we are not. The mental states or attitudes about one’s self are often in conflict.
Clinicians have found that personalization of different aspects of the self have benefit in the helping process. One part negotiates with the other for change. This is tied to our metacognitive ability to play different roles: that of self, other or observer. Yet even in the negotiation, the ‘self’ must decide. And clinical research demonstrates that the self can dramatically choose to change itself, while maintaining at least a degree of coherence with the ‘old’ self. Changing the self in these cases is changing the mental state from one known state to another known state and then maintaining it. Thus, it is within the resource capacity of self that the changes occur even though the self remains. Put it this way. If the mental state you usually assume is sadness or helplessness, this does not imply that you are never happy or hopeful. It merely means that you are more habitually in one mental state than another. Sadness/helplessness is a trait [consistent state] of your personality. Thus, you could change the habit of sadness/helplessness, without adding any new mental states. In doing so, you could dramatically change your outward manifestations [personality] and be seen as a new person. Yet all of the experiences of your life continue to exist, you have merely changed your judgments about them.
We posit the theorem that just as the neurons in the brain operate by consensus vote, and the social world operates by consensus vote; so too does the individual ‘self’.
We see that self is not an isolated construct. “The concepts of self and culture are interdependent: one cannot exist without the other. Thus, while it has become commonplace to regard the self as a cultural product, and enquire as to the ‘environmental’ (cultural) factors that lead to the expression or inhibition of this or that aspect of the self, we must not forget the reverse perspective; that culture itself is a product of the self. Selves are constituted within culture, and culture is maintained by the community of selves” [Lock, 2000].
This interactive quality of self and culture is difficult to measure. The cause and effect of such interactivity is not clear. At any given moment, the ‘self’ may make a decision about the culture that affects and changes the culture. In fact, ‘seeding the culture’ or ‘cultural restructuring’ is a clear cognitive intervention. The development and use of the diagnostic language mentioned above is a method of ‘seeding the environment’ in a manner which we believe has been quite destructive to the general population.
We have a very complex system that at the lowest order has neurons that respond to the stimuli of the external and internal world with waves of electrochemical activity causing each neuron to either fire or not fire, thus creating a thought. All of these thoughts coordinate into data around specific attractors and then is stored holographically. Skipping over some intermediate levels, we get to the person level and find that the person uses stored mental context to determine a decision point and that these stored mental contexts are to some extent shaped by the cultural milieu in which the person lives. The overwhelming evidence of the mental context may sway the decision or the mental context may change because of overwhelming new information coming from the environment. And the various persons who are caught in the culture both influence and are influenced by each other and the information is gathered within individual mental contexts in individual minds, but there is a coherence that can identify one culture as different from another.
This is a very interactive system in which the components, although identifiable, bleed into other components. The system is so complex; that it is unclear what role the construct of language plays in the development of the concept of self, although it is clearly major. Nancy Budwig, in Language and the Construction of Self: Developmental Reflections, indicates that language can be understood as a method to elicit a person’s construct of self, in that grammatical language use gives self referent cues to the content of ‘self’ in the specific. As an example, the simple active voice, the subject of the verb, the agent, does something to someone or something other than or separate from itself. In the passive voice, the agent is de-emphasized and often goes unmentioned, so that an outcome can be described without it being necessary to indicate explicitly who or what was responsible. Thus certain grammatical features of language provide speakers with resources for various presentations of self, and one can begin to infer the speaker’s self construct; if and only if the one hearing the speaker has an understanding of the meaning of the language as culture. One must be wary of taking as a universal feature of the first person, an identification of the speaker as agent. In Japan, for example, nearly all uses of the first-person are indexical of the relevant ‘me-group rather than the speaker as an individual. There are distinctive senses of self-identifiable content in diverse cultures that differ in the dimension of indexing the first person.
With positioning [first person, second person, etc.], the focus is on the way in which the discursive practices constitute the speakers and hearers in certain ways. However, such positioning also constitutes a resource that the person can use to negotiate new positions; or selves. Through language speakers can come to construct and deploy ever-changing subjectivities. This leads us to Budwig’s concept of language as a mechanism or tool with which to construct self. “In contrast to the understanding of language as method, Budwig indicates growing research that has explored how language might provide the child with a wedge for constructing self. This shift posits the question of the gravity concerning the relationship between language and human functioning.
Whatever word we use to describe the language process, whether ‘I’ is an ‘idea’, ‘concept’ or ‘thought’, it is proper to describe this mental activity as a basic element of consciousness. It should be noted, though, that while everybody may think in terms of ideas, it is not necessarily true that the particular ideas that people hold onto about things are always the same. On the other hand, it seems that the thoughts of different people do tend to have something in common: Regardless of what ideas they hold, a person’s thoughts are seldom random, disjointed entities [evidence of a strange attractor perhaps?]. Rather, they tend to form coherent patterns or systems that stem from a few discrete fundamental principles and branch out in logical directions to encompass – to a greater or lesser degree – their whole universe of experienced phenomena. In other words, the conscious mind somehow organizes its mental product (whatever you might want to call it) into systematic frameworks of concepts, and these conceptual frameworks or systems of thought are of decisive importance in determining people’s basic ways of thinking – that is, their cognition – and serve as the foundations of their consciousness, bending the world into a shape that makes sense to them [Paul Russell].
Kerby (1991) summarizes: on a narrative account, the self is to be construed not as a prelinguistic given that merely employs language, much as we might employ a tool, but rather as a product of language – what might be called the implied subject of self- referring utterances. What holds together this group of researchers is their belief that structural properties of language will impact on a child’s construal of self.
The process of becoming a competent member of society is realized to a large extent through language, by acquiring knowledge of its functions, social distribution, and interpretation in and across socially defined situations.
Miller et al. (1990) have argued that face-to-face interactions with significant others provides an arena for the sharing of personal experiences and simultaneously provide an arena for the construction of self (p. 293).
Even if language offers a rich resource from which children can construct self and other, it remains to be understood how children’s budding notions not only of themselves and others, but of language itself, interact with their use and understanding of language in context. Now we have definitely completed the circle of complexity. Is self merely an artifact of language? And what after all is language? A self-created method of communication.