Thursday, June 21, 2012

Observations on The Ego Trick, Part Three

This is part three of many installments in my process/review of Julian Baggini's The Ego Trick: In Search of the Self. There is as much personal reflection in this as there is review of the book, and there are also philosophical reflections on the material.

Part one and Part two are at these links.



I was reading Julian Baggini's The Ego Trick during transit days on my European adventure. At first I thought maybe I was musing more philosophical due to being tired on the plane trip over, but it has continued since I've been here, so maybe it's the continent. Anyway, I've been jotting some random thoughts as I read the book, and here is the third installment.

Although I am back to my normal life, I plan to continue this process as much as I am able, so if this is at all interesting to you, please stay tuned.

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Baggini shares a quote in his section on dementia from John Bayley, husband of the author Iris Murdoch, about her decline into dementia: "I cannot now imagine Iris any different. Her loss of memory becomes, in a sense, my own." That is round statement that deserves real attention, but Baggini did not acknowledge the profundity of it.

Although this book is essentially about the Cartesian Self, the singular, isolated, untethered view of the self that has dominated since the Rennaisance (revealing Baggini's modernist lens, or worldview), post-structuralist models see the self as both more fluid and less isolated - we are social beings and our sense of self is socially, culturally, and interpersonally dependent.

Bayley's comment about the shared loss in his wife's decline reveals the extent to which our own sense of self can be entwined with another person. When Iris's memory faded, including their shared memories, he experienced that loss as his own - so much of our memory is formed in relation to an other - highlighting the relational nature of how we form an experience a sense of self.

In his excellent essay, "The Narrative Construction of Reality," Jerome Bruner makes the following observation:
Eventually it becomes a vain enterprise to say which is the more basic—the mental process or the discourse form that expresses it—for, just as our experience of the natural world tends to imitate the categories of familiar science, so our experience of human affairs comes to take the form of the narratives we use in telling about them.
Have you ever tuned in to your internal monologue and listened to the story, the narrative, it constructs about you, about those around you, the world in which you exist, and so on? Who is this story for? The surrealists and their stream-of-consciousness writing, not to mention the psychoanalytic method of free association, seek to externalize this narrative as art or for healing our wounds, respectively.

There is no other purpose for narrative than sharing it with another human being. We create stories to share them with other people - family, tribe, friends, culture, and so on. 

If this is true, then who is the narrator and who is the listener for our internal monologue?

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Before getting into ideas of multiplicity, Baggini takes a detour into speculations on the soul, a proposed essential self that is in the body, but not of it - the soul is seen as immortal. The dualism explicit in notions of a personal soul seem to go back at least to the 10th century. Baggini identifies the Persian philosopher Avicenna as one of the earliest architects of this concept. He breaks down the flawed logic of Avicenna's argument as an example of how easily our intuitions can lead us astray and how easily we can draw false conclusions from them.

Descartes would make the same flawed argument a few centuries later - cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. When he made the argument, it stuck, and it remains the dominant model of self in the Western world. Unfortunately. Philosophers now refer to Cartesian dualism as the ghost in the machine.

When people are asked to imagine having no body - not that it's invisible or numb - many feel it easy to do so. For some, they imagine being in a dark quiet room focusing only on their thoughts - this is what it would be like to have no body. But what is doing the thinking? Modern neuroscience, for those who believe science has something to offer in this discussion, has shown that thought depends on brain function - no brain, no thought. And as Dr. Daniel Siegel points out in his books and lectures, there is no body-brain split, they are one in the same. The brain is part of the body, not separate from it. Therefore, no body, no thought.

In 1949, Gilbert Ryle proposed that Descartes had made a category error in his reasoning - he intuited that thoughts and feelings are not physical things, so they must be a different kind of thing, a non-physical thing. But, as Baggini points out, Rule had also made a mistake in that thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are not things at all, but processes. Thoughts are not things we have but, rather, processes that brains do.

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It's apparent in Baggini's chapter on multiplicity, which begins with dissociative identity disorder (DID), that he his at best skeptical of this phenomenon. I was skeptical of DID (although not of multiplicity in general), as well, until I began working with survivors of acute and chronic childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, and rape/molestation.

However, he is even more skeptical of "recovered" memories of childhood abuse: "Nor should a belief that some, if not many, recovered memories of abuse are false entail that all or most memories of abuse are." He is making a useful distinction here between "real" memories of abuse and "recovered" memories, those which do not appear until one is in therapy, often referred to as iatrogenic (created by the therapist). A study often cited by Colin Ross, one of the world's experts on dissociation and DID, revealed that during the height of the DID diagnosis trend (in the late 1980s and into the 1990s), 90 percent of these diagnoses were made by less than 10 percent of working therapists. Moreover, considerable research had called into question the methods by which recovered memories are "discovered."

Where Baggini really goes off the rails in this chapter (in a way that is unfortunately consistent with the reigning medical model), is in suggesting that the psychoanalytic method itself creates DID diagnoses where none exist. His first mistake is in assuming that there are very many therapists and counselors even working psychoanalytically - the vast majority would describe themselves as eclectic (or some similar word), but most of them are doing something close to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or Rogerian client-centered therapy. 

More importantly, however, modern psychoanalysis has become highly relational and intersubjective - Baggini's notion of viewing things the client denies having experienced as repression is a few decades out of date (admittedly, there are still some old school Freudians around, but they are a tiny minority). Baggini asserts that if the "therapist believes the client has suffered abuse, then denial will be taken to indicate repression, while assertion will be a sign that this repression has been overcome." He likens this to the mistaken messiah in Monty Python's "Life of Brian."

The reality is that no respectable therapist would work that way. We might suspect abuse, but that is something noted in the progress notes or discussed in consultation - it is not something we go digging for with the client.

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A little detour is necessary here to explain the contemporary model of psychoanalysis.

Most of us focus on the present-moment relationship with the client, both interpersonal (exterior) and intersubjective (interior), and any material the client presents from childhood or otherwise is taken "as if," held to be true in the client's experience (whether or not is is literally true is not our job to determine, barring paranoid delusions, and even then the process is one of "joining" with the client and not trying to convince him he is being psychotic). In this approach it is assumed that anything the client presents for "work" is relevant in some way to their prior relationships, and our role is to validate their experience (without judging, and also without condoning). Far too often in most people's lives, their experience was not validated or acknowledged, and just as often it was negated or rejected. The simple power of validation is often quite healing for some clients.

James Fosshage offers a brief overview of the current psychoanalytic perspective ("A Relational Self Psychological Perspective"):
Kohut (1959, 1982) recognized that there were two perspectives within the analytic arena and, updating psychoanalytic epistemology, placed his emphasis on the patient’s perspective in his formulation of the empathic mode of observation. To listen empathically is to hear and experience the patient as best we can, through affect resonance and vicarious introspection, from within the patient’s frame of reference.
And . . .
I (1995, 1997b) have recently formulated another primary listening/experiencing perspective, termed the other-centred listening per-spective. This perspective refers to how one can experience the patient from the vantage-point of the other person, that is, what it feels like to be the other person in a relationship with the patient. This other-centred perspective (frequently emphasized in object relations and interpersonal approaches) provides us potentially with important information about the patient’s relationships.
And this on the shift from a one-person to a two-person therapeutic model (Freud's original conception required the analyst to be a blank slate on which the patient projects unconscious material - it's telling that Freud never practiced in this way):
Psychological development, pathogenesis, transference and thera-peutic action are no longer viewed as primarily intrapsychically generated phenomena, but as deeply embedded within and shaped by a relational or intersubjective field (Fosshage 1992). For example, within the constructivist (Hoffman 1998) or organizing models (Stolorow & Lachmann 1984/85; Fosshage 1994), transference is viewed not as primarily intrapsychically generated, but as variably co-contributed to by analyst and patient. This shift from an intrapsychic to a field perspective is profound and ‘can be likened to the Copernican revolution, in that the individual, like planet earth, does not exist alone but can be understood only in relation to the “gravitational forces” of the universe at large’ (Fosshage 1992).
Finally, he outlines the nature of the psychoanalytic relationship as co-constructed:
In my view, analyst and patient co-construct, through perception and inter-action, the analytic encounter. While the analytic relationship is asymmetrical in focus (Aron 1996), the analyst and the analyst’s subjectivity (Stolorow, Brandchaft & Atwood 1987) are much more involved through perception and interpersonal interaction than previously realized. We have come to recognize and make use of a range of responses far beyond interpretation (Gedo 1979; Bacal 1985; Fosshage 1997b; Knoblauch 2000). The analytic relationship is asymmetrical, but it is truly a complex co-constructed relationship.
Within this model, we don't work with transference and counter-transference - the old perspective of intrapsychic experience - rather, we work with co-transference (a termed coined by Donna Orange). Co-transference recognizes that if the client is having a transference experience, then there is something about the therapist and her/his relationship to and with the therapist that creates the dynamic - likewise for the therapist feeling triggered by something in the relationship to or with the client. In this sense, EVERY therapeutic dyad is unique and each one will produce unique transference experiences.

OK, all of this is a way to show that Baggini's model of psychoanalysis is outdated.

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After seriously questioning so much of DID theory, he looks at the most simple and accurate possibility for explaining general multiplicity, that the only necessary activity in the brain is for one system to go "offline" and for another to come "online." He uses a computer metaphor to examine multiplicity in this chapter. He follows that up with the admission that Nicholas Humphry and Daniel Dennett, in their investigation of DID, found no reason why it is not possible to experience splitting in the self.

If this kind of "strong" multiplicity is possible (meaning DID), Baggini asks, then should we all accept a "weak" multiplicity and abandon any notion of a unitary Self? Most people already believe that they are multi-faceted and that if someone only knows them in one context - at work, for example - then they do not know all of their personality or self.

In order to explain why the notion of multiple selves has become more widely accepted, Baggini dredges up the demon of postmodernism (it's apparent, as speculated above, that he is not a fan of this developmental stage in culture and philosophy). Postmodernism rejects ideas of a single grand narrative to explain all of history, or all of science, or even the self. In postmodern theory, no one story is more right than another - every event can be seen from multiple narrative perspectives, which takes us back to Jerome Bruner's narrative construction of reality.

In reflecting on some authors' views on the cultural and social construction of the self, he suggests that if this is true, then we are free to become the authors of our own narratives, to write our own self or selves as we see fit. If only it were that easy. Baggini seems irritated with postmodernists and their insistence on ambiguity and fragmentation, and rightfully so. To genuinely become self-authoring, according to adult development expert and Harvard professor Robert Kegan (The Evolving Self and In Over Our Heads), is the pinnacle of adult development - very few people ever reach that stage. To do so requires, at a minimum, that we become self-aware (able to hold our self or selves as object/s of awareness), and very few people ever get even this far. 

There is much more to who and what we are than a collection of discourses or narratives. There are, as Baggini notes, constraints. First and foremost we are biological beings and with these bodies comes the genes that partially determine our unique character, size and shape, and so much else - then there is the impact of nurture (our environmental surround, which includes physical space as well as relational space) on those genes and how they express themselves, or don't, as we develop (epigenetics). 

Once we can look at ourselves from a third-person perspective (as an object of awareness rather than a subject of experience), we can identify eight realms that we shape and our shaped by in our development of self or selves:

For each of these four there is both a first-person (I) and third-person (me) perspective available: objective/it (body and behavior), subjective/I (psyche, including memories, emotions, thoughts, and spirituality), subjective/we (shared culture, values, beliefs), objective/its (political systems, economics, means of production, legal codes, and physical space). The crucial point is that none of these can truly be understood in isolation from the others - they are interdependent and co-arising.
Obviously, the postmodernists are looking at only one quadrant, but even Baggini is not acknowledging the holarchical nature of reality.

This is Wilber's representation of the 1st person (inside the circle) and 3rd person (outside the circle) view in each quadrant:


This section has gone on far longer than the others for two reasons - 1) this is a topic I have spent considerable time researching and on which I have very clear perspectives, and 2) I am in the midst of a 9 hour flight from London to Dallas as I return home from Europe, so I have some time on my hands.

But I want to address one more section of this chapter in which Baggini speaks with Rita Carter, author of Multiplicity, on the nature of the self in her model. Unlike most multiplicity models (such as Voice Dialogue, Internal Family Systems, Psychosynthesis, Jungian complexes, or ego states, all of which posit some kind of core self, aware ego, higher self, and so on), she believes that behind the masks of our various selves there is no one else to be found. 

Her view holds some similarity to Hubert Hermans' Dialogical Self Theory, which he defines quite briefly as follows:
Many contemporary conceptions of the self are, often unwittingly, based on Cartesian notions of the mind as individualized, ahistorical, noncultural, disembodied, and centralized. In opposition to these assumptions, the dialogical self is conceived of as socialized, historical, cultural, embodied, and decentralized.
Of the current multiplicity models, DST is the most integrated and free from reliance on any form of solid self - this makes it both intellectually challenging and practically useful in a clinical setting.
There is much more to be said for and about multiplicity, but this has already gone on too long.

6.17.2012
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