Thursday, March 15, 2012

"I" and "Me": A New Model for S/O Split and the Birth of the Self

Salvador Dali, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus.
Regarding theories of how the "self" comes to be known, that is, how "I" comes to meet "me," the leading figures are Charles Horton Cooley, George Herbert Mead and Jacques Lacan. These three theorists  have proposed models for the way in which the knower becomes the knower of the known. Also called the self concept, conscious self, and the subject/object split, the concern is how one comes to be both knower and known. This question continues to be an area of exploration for artists, psychoanalysts, psychologists, and philosophers.

Mead's symbolic interactionist theory has roots in the pragmatist philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Building on the idea that we are born as an "I" -an active knower- and only come to develop the self, the "me," through social interaction. Mead describes how the I begins to relate gestures with reactions in others. Through these gestures the child comes to discover that they can manipulate the environment. Later, the child begins engaging in play. During solo play the child adopts contrasting roles, switching between doctor and patient, cop and robber, or "good guy" and "bad guy". Mead describes how this switching between playtime characters forms the child's ability to switch between perspectives, eventually developing the ability to see the I from the point of the other, which Mead calls the me. In social play, the child learns the rules of certain games. These rules, or limitations, Mead contends, serve as the first symbolic other,  which we can say comes to frustrate the child with limitations on action. This is the point from which Sigmund Freud picks up. 

Jacques Lacan, speculating on the work of French philosopher and psychologist Henri Wallon, proposed that the self is realized between the ages of 6 and 18 months, when the child comes to recognize itself in a mirror for the first time. Dubbed the mirror phase, this is the moment when the subject splits, becoming the object of its own subjectivity. The mirror stage is the foundation of the image of the I, what Lacan came to call the imaginaire (image of the imaginary).

Whereas Mead contends that the "I" becomes aware of the "me" through childhood play, and Lacan contends that the moment of self recognition occurs in relationship to one's image in a mirror, we would like to propose a yet unexplored aspect of the subject/object split.

The proposal is that dreaming is the evolutionary mechanism that brings about the image of the self and self consciousness.

Although evolutionary psychologists have proposed various models for the evolutionary function of dreaming, one which illustrates dreaming as a mechanism of self consciousness has not been proposed. Even in psychoanalysis, where the dream serves not only as the "royal road to the unconscious," but also as a foundation of psychoanalytic theory, does not make the dream-self connection.

An initial elaboration on this model, a speculative addition to both the social interactionists' and the psychodynamic insights, will be made here, although the idea is in need of more thorough elaboration.

Since infants are prelinguistic, their dreams are most likely to be similar to early memories, called flashbulb memories. This would mean a compilation of images, not unlike montage technique in film. In the prelinguistic state the framework of chronos time, dependent on the grammatical-logical reference (present, future, past) of most culutres, would not be acted. Instead, the dream life would mostly consist of kairos time, or the emotional connection of motion and transition between images. As the infant enters into linguistic stages (after 1st year through 6th year), the features of language begin to shape thought and thus the dream. Contrasting between the dream life and waking life, comparisons between transductive logic, analogic, induction and deduction, as well as chronos based time become evident. We cannot know that the dream follows rules that are unlike the rules of waking life until the rules of waking life are developed (learned) through grammatical framing and symbolic interaction. This would also include individuation, or what Jean Piaget referred to as object permanence and overcoming egocentricity.

In the dream the child encounters the image of the self. When we dream in the third person, we experience the emotional reaction in the first person. It is at this moment that the characteristics of the I experiencing the me, described by Mead, fall into perfect harmony with this dream model of self. Unlike Mead's model of the development of the self concept, which acts through play, this model depicts the child simultaneously experiencing the emotional experience from inside and from outside of the I. The child is, at once, actor and audience to their own performance.



Friday, March 9, 2012

Mere Activity of the Brain or "Nothing but" Psychology

Neuroscientific explanations of human experience are the rage. Science writers, who all too often know just enough science to be dangerous -and not enough to be discerning, enthusiastically swarm around celebrity experts, repeating and indulging their narrative with oftentimes myopic and unexamined assumptions. Quite possibly the most dangerous of our time are those who write and speak with the tone, the rhetoric, of authority, but without the authority itself. By contrast, one characteristic that we often find in those who are the most thorough and penetrating in their thoughts is their refusal to refer to themselves in outdated and chauvinistic terms such as expert or authority. Such titles are remnants of an Enlightenment attitude that is quickly passing into history.

Today it is nearly impossible to read about the human experiences of love, anger, lust, empathy, or creativity without being told that these are merely chemicals or neural connections of the brain. The explanation is convincing, and to many, it seems, satisfying. Like the interesting work in evolutionary psychology and psychoanalysis, the explanations are typically the repetition of a single narrative. In other words, the same punch-line for every joke.

We are not dismissing the necessity for, or possible importance of, such empirical insights. But we are stating, and stating emphatically, that the schw√§rmerei over biological explanations is not only headlong, but also limits ones understanding of themselves and others.

These explanations, given by great authorities of science, and often expounded in the presentist, narcissistic-wonderment of journalism, leaves the reader with an illusion of knowing -the false sense of security that the great ecclesiastics of modernity have it all under control.

Because examples of the mere activity of the brain explanations are so frequent, I will not present specific instances here. One can find examples in nearly any magazine or newspaper article written on a fad topic. On Valentine's Day we are told that love is due to the increased levels of the hormone oxytocin, and when we feel depressed we are told that we have an imbalance of serotonin. These explanations, given by great authorities of science, and often expounded in the presentist, narcissistic-wonderment of journalism, leave the reader with an illusion of knowing -the false sense of security that the great ecclesiastics of modernity have it all under control.

William James
The founder of American psychology, William James, called this attitude nothing-but psychology. Referring to the popular position of the German experimentalists, James described it as an "unwarrantable impertinence in the present state of psychology". Today, however, technology lends the imprimatur for pertinence. The august spectacle of computer imaging (fMRI, MRI, CT and PET scanning) conflate technology and knowing. The equipment lends a certain authority to the orientation. After all, the technology is a tool, and not the theoretical framework, of the explanation.

To better understand the mere activity of the brain attitude, we must consider the two pillars of biological psychology and neuroscience. The two central ideas are reductionism and mechanism.

Reductionism is the belief that the further some material thing is reduced (dissected) the closer we get to the foundation, base, or "truth" of that thing. It seems logical and is easy to accept that a potato is made up of microscopic cells -something we all learn in early school days. The idea that reducing something to its smallest parts will bring us to the fundamental stuff that it is, is not only incorrect, it is antiquated. The Quantum Revolution in physics dismissed the myth of reductionism. To understand this, think of an hour glass. At some point the funneling inverts and becomes large. In theoretical terms this means that reduction to the microscopic reveals an infinitely large, quantum dimension. Ideas of big, small, and necessarily reductionism, become meaningless.

What then does reductionism in biological psychology tell us? The forgotten lesson was taught by not only by William James but the Gestalt psychologists. Contemporary neuropsychology would benefit from a Gestalt or Jamesian renaissance. The lesson is: genes, neurotransmitters, hormones, and cells, taken collectively, are expressions of what we call, on the social or personal level, emotions, motivation, and action. These are not causes, but rather, qualities.

The lesson is: genes, neurotransmitters, hormones, and cells, taken collectively, are expressions of what we call, on the social or personal level, emotions, motivation, and action. These are not causes, but rather, qualities.

The second assumption of the mere activity of the brain attitude is the philosophical position of mechanism. An antiquated notion of the Enlightenment, mechanism (also known as materialism) holds that the analysis of the behavior of reduced stuff (like neurotransmitter or genes) will reveal a systematic, lawful, predictable clockwork mechanism. This position holds that the more one observes the behavior of the parts, the more one will come to understand its regular patterns. Although this belief is held by many experimentalists in behavioral science, it has been retired in other sciences for over one hundred years.

With the Einsteinian Revolution (1905) and Werner Heissenberg's Uncertainty Principle (1927) the way science is done was changed. Both of these scientific reorientations resulted from Peirce's pragmatic semiotics and entered physics into the Post-Enlightenment projects of quantum mechanics, string theory, and chaos theory. Today experimental psychology and neuroscience remain firmly rooted in an Enlightenment tradition that clings to simplistic causal relationships that can only be established through reduction and careful documentation of the mechanized patterns of behavior. The necessary step, is a reconsideration of James' 1890 Principles of Psychology.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

1954: Psychoanalysis & Dr. Fredric Wertham


In 1954 the moral war against comic books reached a critical point of congressional action. These descendants of the pulps became public enemy number one during the hearings of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee on Juvenile Delinquency. At the center of the comic book witch-hunt was Dr. Fredric Wertham, a German-American psychiatrist who devoted most of his professional career declaring comic books as the main contributor to American juvenile delinquency. It was during this same year that EC Comics, the most widely-cited publisher of horror comics, released a short-lived series entitled Psychoanalysis.

Dr. Wertham was no stranger to the psychoanalytic tradition, as correspondence with Sigmund Freud led to his decision to become a psychiatrist. His most famous book, Seduction of the Innocent, appeared in 1954. The text, which presented Wertham's classic analysis of the homosexual pederasty in Batman, sexual bondage in Wonder Woman, and Superman as fascist, led to the comic book industry's preemptive establishment of the Comics Code Authority of 1954. The CCA placed regulations on the graphic depiction of violence and gore, as well as good girl art (GGA) which depicted women as sexually charged -regardless of the situation.

Psychoanalysis was one of seven titles that were published by EC Comics under the New Direction series -a reaction to the recently enacted CCA codes. Psychoanalysis saw only four issues before publisher William Gaines abandoned the comic book industry and went on to publish Mad magazine for over forty years.

Although Psychoanalysis possessed all of the intrigue and mystery of the unconscious itself, it was not the most controversial title in the series. Whereas Psychoanalysis offered young readers a voyeuristic peep at the psychoanalyst's couch, another title Judgement Day would become the most controversial of the New Direction series. An allegory of racial tensions in America, the CCA refused to approve the story unless the final frame -a black astronaut- was removed. Code administrator, Judge Charles Murphy, rescinded his decision under threat by EC Comics to publicly expose his bigotry.

Dr. Fredric Wertham continued his work to bring attention to violent and sexual content in the media. He made frequent appearances on talk shows, at congressional committee hearings, and even debated violence in film with none other than Alfred Hitchcock.