Sunday, July 13, 2008

New Theory of the Mind III

In my last post I began to use "syn" for synthesizer, but it is awkward and its sound reminds us of conventional morality. So I prefer the "self," to avoid jargon.

How can we conceptualize this complicated process of the self? Most intriguing, how does the will decide and act? And what precedes the will? The will is the final arbiter of human consciousness, except in cases of mental distress, as in the indecision of depression, or by injury or congenital deficiency of the brain. Even in such cases the will must usually be engaged, if the person can care for himself at all and is not entirely disabled in mind, which is rare and most complete in cases of holoprosenchephaly.

The unconscious, literally that part of the mind of which we are not currently conscious, extends in rootlets from the tap root of the will into the earth below, while the bole branches above ground into the conscious self. The will is influenced by both conscious and unconscious factors, but we can only see the branches, not the roots. The roots feed the tree water and necessary nutrients, just as the leaves produce sugar for fuel by photosynthesis, the former invisible, the latter, visible.

Much has been made of unconscious motivation, and it can affect the will for ill or good. A phobia of spiders has roots in primal terror but efficiently limits the extension of fear to one object, thereby obeying a principle of the psychological parsimony of containment. What the self labors for is not limited to the unconscious, however. The conscious mind may buy spider-killing spray to assuage its fears as a consequence of the ultimate influence of a deep root where the spider was associated with more fear than a spider merits. To contain the primal fear in one example prevents the self from becoming entirely dysfunctional. This is no less than the famous formulation of Freudian ego defenses, where the abject terror of free-floating anxiety saps the self of energy to a greater degree than a directed fear or phobia.

The information that flows through the will usually goes through unobstructed; if a practiced surgeon must make an adjustment in the midst of a procedure due to an anatomic anomaly, for instance, his brain doesn't freeze. He consults intellectual memory to plan a new approach to the surgical field, and by projecting known techniques and principles on a previously unknown happenstance, he smoothly solves the problem. A younger or more neurotic surgeon might pause for a moment of anxiety to gather himself, but will overcome his fears and quiet his soul to deduce the right move, else avail himself of a more experienced surgeon's advice, a step that requires not only contemplation of the difficulty but recognition of one's limitations, a mature function of the self's ability to distance itself from its center and analyze and identify a shortcoming in knowledge.

But the emotions attending the call to a colleague can also be fraught with fear, fear of appearing incompetent, a great fear with doctors; fear of disturbing the other surgeon; fear that other staff might lose faith in him if he must resort to help. A worse doctor would plow ahead without consultation, perhaps out of confidence or overconfidence--confidence in his past performance and problem-solving, from the benefit of intellectual and emotional memory, or overconfidence--a need to risk appearing competent for the sake of his inner sense of status or well-being.

When the junior surgeon picks up the phone and dials, he has come from emotional memory, intellectual memory, thought (visual, tactile and verbal), analysis, and emotion in a complicated risk vs. benefit ratio to risking his self-esteem. Emotional memory might serve him if he remembers a botched procedure where he didn't ask for help, so that it becomes a warning. As for the role of the unconscious in either asking or not asking for help, memories and associations can include the emotional palette of parent-child and master-pupil interactions of past relationships, as distant or more distant than the success or failure in trying to tie a new knot in the Cub Scouts.

There may also be intrusions before the call is made or not made, the image of a new sports car the surgeon would like to buy; the prospect of a drink when the operation is over, or a girlfriend waiting to welcome him at home. Or conversely, a desire not to go home may prevail and extend the operation needlessly because the doctor lives alone and has no social life, such that the operating room and the practice of medicine are his emotional sustenance which he naturally likes to extend for pleasure.

To return to my analogy, light on the leaves of the tree speak to the receptive faculties of the conscious. The more information we pursue, the better directions the will can incarnate. Above all, the quickest way to bring light to a subject is to ask the opinion of another human being, who can use their synthesizer to offer (one hopes) an objective opinion, free of the twists and turns of one's own particular tree.

We live for new information. It is part of the lifelong effort of mastery over the world, begun in the crib when reaching for mobiles, increased with walking and bowel control, and exponentially increased with the acquisition of language.

And here is another observation: easy decisions bypass consciousness and go straight through the will to the body, as in whether I should have another sip of my drink, which I don't usually think about unless I have drunk too much. In the latter case, before the decision is made and the will engaged, I may experience an internal debate inside the synthesizer prior to being able to engage my will, and even the act of drinking may be attended by negative emotion like guilt--which can paradoxically increase how fast I sip as it re-enacts parent-child struggle of limits internally: "Now Johnny, don't stay out too late." If Johnny does he will be tracked down by the parent and usually made to feel bad for his transgression; thus running, as in fight or flight, can become intoxicating, especially to escape punishment. Likewise, if someone threatens to take your power to drink away, you will easily overcompensate and drink more to assert your right, hence the failure of Prohibition. All of this goes by in a split second, of course. Simply by observing my own thought, I cannot anywhere near describe the entire chain of how the will is engaged and what permutations can transpire that cause the will to act erratically in view of reason, as in guiltily drinking faster because my internal mother is telling me I have drunk too much.

If I think I have had enough to drink, I should be able to stop with my reason, noting the physical memory of hangovers and the intellectual memory of fogginess. But pleasure is powerful, and desire often proves stronger than the influence of the conscious mind on the will.

Take dieting, for instance, which under the best clinical circumstances has no more than a 5% success rate, much worse than smoking cessation. The mind decides that the mass of the body has become uncomfortable, or looks unattractive, or should better conform to television norms. A diet is considered. If entertained long enough, a diet may be adopted. And after its adoption comes at first a feeling of satisfaction at one's self-control, quickly followed by a persistent feeling of deprivation, as in the ice cream in the freezer one can't taste.

Pleasure and pain have a great deal to do with decisions, in fact may be the primary motivators of human behavior beyond survival, though even survival might be subsumed under them because it is painful to die of starvation. The conflict in weight loss is complicated by a "good," namely food, being proscribed as bad. It goes against all our evolutionary development to think that an abundance of food should be limited for no other reason than our waistline; it should be instantly gobbled for that eventual rainy day of insufficient stores. Thus the pain of deprivation, accompanied by many rationalizations (insufficient but reasonably sounding excuses), plus the looming pleasure of forbidden fruit cause the self to give up its reason-imposed diet and give in to the pain and pleasure principle.

In our model, one rational part of the tree's branches, call it the limb of reason, feeds information to the synthesizer that it hopes will alter the self's behavior. But the self is ultimately overwhelmed by other factors that do not obey reason: bodily craving, belief that food is good, a feeling of unfairness due to deprivation. As the Apostle Paul said about trying to obey the Jewish law in Romans 7, "I do what I do not want to do." He blames the sin inside his mortal flesh for the inability to yield to rational self-control, but the situation is much more complicated, though his biblical treatment is truly advanced psychology, as he tries to trump the conflict of bodily desire with a higher pleasure, the experience of the Holy Spirit, one of whose "fruits" in the book of Galatians is "self-control."

In the example of a diet, you can see how the self is split, not into only competing ideas and desires, but into internal images of the good boy and the bad, the fat self and the lean, the satisfied self and the deprived, the future and the past. If past experience includes neglect in childhood where food became the primary comfort, or threatening experiences of hunger have been endured, the emotional memory is more likely to ensure failure at a diet. If emotional memory has fewer bonds with struggles over food and fear of not being fed, the self is more likely to adhere to a diet and accomplish its goal for the body. Still, the evolutionary drive to eat as much good-tasting stuff as possible is hard to control even in a person without emotional food issues, and here the prospect of group enforcement or a "higher power" has great advantages in managing the self by social and spiritual means.

Let us return to the will. When the will is engaged and action ensues, the center of the self is in control and all the preceding information and conjecture have been compressed into a choice. Once made, a choice can never be undone, though it can be revised and repaired. Once the angry word leaves your mouth and your friend breaks into tears, your words cannot be taken back. Forgiveness is never as reliable as the good will that comes from never having hurt another. Forgiveness must be generated from emotion, thought, and memory, both conscious and unconscious, to succeed. It does have a certain richness that the non-occurrence of a hurtful act does not; by forgiveness the mind engages in an act of love which produces maturation and perspective that avoidance of hurt cannot match in terms of personal education.

Here's another way of thinking about the self and the will. Imagine a quill pen with a thousand quills, like a feather duster, where each quill contributes to the flow of ink. The tip of the pen then becomes the will, what the influence of all the quills, both visible and invisible (unconscious), have amounted to. It is who we are. "By their fruits shall ye know them," Christ said. "Withhold judgment of a person until you see their actions," wise men advise us.

The Existentialists have known this for a long time, though they put too little value on what precedes the will, and indeed if life is random and morality only a device for herd survival, they would be right. But as Kant showed, morality is inescapable as part and parcel of the self, excepting, of course, the true sociopath whose brain lacks this function. (It has been shown that sons of convicts often receive 10% less frontal lobe matter, just as their fathers did, by PET scan measure, and this is precisely the area of the brain that most entertains morals.)

This brings up another question: Is there such a thing as a normal brain? Perhaps not; but even when I say "typical" brain I do not mean that of the true sociopath. In any case, true sociopaths can be taught to observe morality even if they don't quite get it internally, by the limits society naturally places on their desires, including prison, injury, loss of status, and death. Yet one must admit that the prospect of making a decision must be easier if it is not accompanied by a moral weighing. Perhaps this simplicity allows the sociopath to be clever, else by being fundamentally amoral, he can surprise the unwitting and thus appear smarter than he is.

In general, sociopaths tend to be of average or less-than-average intelligence, but such statistics are garnered from those who have been caught. For every two-bit burglar on the street there is probably an upper class equivalent like Kenneth Lay of Enron, as sociopathic tendencies can be suppressed at many levels in order to achieve a goal--say of corporate leadership--that might not have been obtained if the person had not learned how to behave in society. Perhaps sociopathy is spread across all intelligences equally, but we lack proof of it at this time.

In the retarded and children, decisions are also much easier. A two-year old who sees an ice cream cone may simply reach for it without concern, even if he's been told "no," since his language acquisition is by no means complete and oppositional behavior of the young child is a test by which the self individuates as opposed to non-self. The parent, in putting down limits, thinks the child ought to understand the reasons, but the child cannot. At that point of development it is the repeated response of the parent in limiting freedom that communicates to the child that the pleasure is not worth the deprivation or punishment that follows. To those who say, "Isn't that cute?", what is cute at two is not at ten, thus the need for education in limits early on, though preferably through denial of the opportunity rather than punishment, if the house can be child-proofed and the parents are attentive to the level of language development and social comprehension of the child.

We have seen how the synthesizer is an umbrella term to denote the self, from its unconscious roots to its conscious branches, and how the bole of the tree where it meets the roots can signify the will, or final arbiter of the synthesizing process. To accomplish a choice many damping filters must also be employed, and homeostasis can be hard to maintain.

To be continued...

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