Every Man Is An Island

…existentially speaking, that is. We are trapped in our own subjectivity and can’t fully escape. This is the “unbridgeable gulf between oneself and any other being,” (1) which Irvin Yalom refers to as existential isolation. This unbridgeable gulf can vary in size but it is always there.

The reality which our minds generate is infused with our experience, emotion and judgment; but this is generally invisible to us, and we are regularly fooled into believing that what we experience is THE TRUTH. We believe the gulf created by our subjectivity can be bridged by TRUTH, and we are lulled into debate as we try to convince others of THE TRUTH. This is chasing after the wind, a fools errand. All we can do is share from our observation point, our experience, our personal truth and hope that the other is willing to try and build a partial bridge towards us.

This partial bridge is built with empathy, a genuine willingness to attempt to enter into the experience of another. Empathy requires awareness that we are trapped in our own subjectivity, because only then do we understand that we actually have to wade through our own subjectivity and notice its interference in the bridge building process. Empathy is a process that inspires dialogue just as belief in TRUTH inspires debate. Empathy is imperfect bridge building that never completes the full span of the gulf. Nevertheless, a partial bridge creates the opportunity for connection, understanding and healing, something which most of us crave: a healing from the wounds of our isolation, disconnection and feeling unknown.

 

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? — Henry David Thoreau

 

(1) Yalom, I. A., 1980. Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Pretty Good Stories

Understanding that our experience of the world is a “useful fiction” can open us up for major shifts in how we operate in the world, especially in our interpersonal world. To the extent that we have been fooled by our intuitive realness, our mode of communication is more likely to be debate-oriented. Debate is oppositional (e.g., my truth versus your truth, I’m right, you’re wrong). Since we believe our view of the world to be the truth, it will feel very confusing and threatening to have it challenged.

Our reality generating minds are meaning makers. We are always doing this and generally notice it only when something anomalous happens that doesn’t make sense — even then our mind has probably already come up with a pretty good story. The extreme example of “split brain” patients helps to demonstrate this. Split brain is a term to describe patients who have had a corpus callostomy to manage a severe seizure disorder. The corpos callosum is the connection between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This extreme procedure is like creating a firebreak, in that it prevents a seizure from spreading throughout the whole brain. Since our two hemispheres are cross connected with our bodies and visual fields, information presented to the left visual field goes to the right hemisphere and vice versa with the right visual field. Since the speech controls are usually in the left hemisphere, this means that if something is presented to the right hemisphere the patient cannot say what they saw, but they can draw a picture or make a selection with their left hand which is controlled by the right hemisphere. Research on patients who have had this procedure has revealed some interesting phenomena. After being presented with an image to the right hemisphere subjects may be asked why they made the selection or drew the picture. Interestingly, they don’t plead ignorance, rather they confabulate a response.

While most of us have our two hemispheres connected, we are regularly faced with our behavior that has unconscious origins, as well as the behavior of others. Like the split brain patients, we too fabricate our useful fictions to explain our actions and those of the people around us. Usually these stories are close enough to the mark that we feel no need to question them, but question them we should. We are shaped more by the stories we weave than the truth. Realizing this opens us to a much better communication alternative than debate. If we can begin to share our stories, knowing that they are just stories, we can collaborate, rather than oppose, dialogue rather than debate. Think of what the five men and the elephant could have discovered through dialogue!blindmenelephant

 

John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

 

Intuitive Realness

The “realness” of the world is something we intuitively feel.  However, as I indicated in my previous post, “objective reality” might not be so objective. Even if there is a real world “out there” we can only experience it mentally, and mental experience is unavoidably subjective, unavoidably filtered. We all experience a self-biased world which feels very real, very”truthy” and actually unbiased. If you know someone who does not have access to one or more of their senses, you are very aware that you experience the world very differently than they do. Our self-biased world is also species specific, as anyone who has lived with another species has experienced. Each species highlights or tunes out part of “reality” depending upon its own survival needs. The world your dog experiences is not only different but unavailable to you. Science may have instruments more sensitive than our bodies, but these instruments cannot give us the true experience of the “real world.”

Our minds generate our reality; we are continuously and actively constructing the world we experience. Our experienced world is filtered and infused with our unique human emotions and thoughts. Donald Hoffman, a professor at UC Irvine who studies visual perception, has a hypothesis that perception is more of a multimode user interface (MUI): “The conscious perceptual experiences of an agent are a multimodal user interface between that agent and an objective world.” (1)  This theory suggests that what we experience as objects are more akin to the icons we have on our computer desktop than what is likely really going on. In the same way that the user friendly icon on your computer in no way represents the reality behind it, our observed objects are but useful fictions that allow us to interact with an unfathomable “reality” that can’t be fully experienced. Hoffman also points out that it would not be an advantage to us if we could.

Necker-Cube

The image above is the Necker cube which Hoffman likes to use as a demonstration of our reality construction. Our minds take the patterns within these eight circles and construct a cube, but this cube can be seen in multiple ways. Is it a cube on top of the red circles? Is the small red x on the front or back? Or, are we looking through the red circles to see the cube as if through small windows, and in that case is the x on the front or back? When our mind constructs the cube in front it also puts in the white connecting lines — even though they aren’t really there. These lines disappear when we are looking through the red circular windows. We can actually experience “reality” shifting as we move between these different perspectives (be patient). How does our past experience with the cube shape impact what we see? Would some people, perhaps young children, only see the red circles with patterns in them?

Our minds generate our reality and then believe that world is real. We feel like our sense organs are like open windows letting in what is really “out there.” We believe in objectivity, unfortunately, we have been fooled.

(1) D. Hoffman. Conscious realism and the mind-body problem. Mind & Matter, 2008, 6, 87-121.

 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

The Chicken and Egg Dilemma of Mind and Brain

Mind Brain Relationship

I think a lot about the mind and the brain and what the relationship is between these two. Minds have been trying to understand minds for thousands of years, though it is only in recent history that scientists have had the tools to study the brain. Efforts to correlate the mind’s experiences to brain regions have been in high gear. Regions associated with perception, sensation, emotion, cognition, bodily regulation and more have been identified. Most of the neuroscience community makes the assumption, based on these correlations, that mind is a function of the brain — that our mind, our consciousness, is just the subjective experience of our brain function.

Our mind is our subjective experience, and when we experience we objectify that experience. Language allows us to label “objects” and make associations with them that we can then communicate. We generally experience objects as “real” solid things. A brain is one such object that is made up of other labeled objects such as lobes, neurons, neurotransmitters, cells, atoms, etc. Language has associated all of these objects into a cohesive narrative.

The central question is which came first? Does mind create the brain, or does brain create the mind? This is a classic chicken and egg-type problem. With most problems, it is helpful to look at the assumptions we are making. For example, are objects real? Are they solid things? Keeping in mind that some “objects” are intangible, such as our thoughts and feelings, most of the others “feel” real. Realness, however, is only subjectively experienced, like every object within our mind. This is a tricky concept to get our minds around because our minds are, in function, reality generators. It is also tricky because others often communicate, through language their experience of these objects. How do we know there is a “real” world out there? While this is not a new debate, it is not a settled debate.

Culturally and experientially it may seem that the debate is settled, and the world of matter and real objects have won the day. Neuroscience is focused now on trying to understand how the brain generates our consciousness (not the other way around). The predominant assumption is that the brain and matter are primary and mind or consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. While we do know that physical or chemical changes to the brain impact and are correlated with subjective experience, must we conclude that mind is an emergent property of the brain? We also know that when we drop our television on the floor that our audio-visual experience of the television might change. Is the television generating the audio-visual experience? Is mind nothing more than the workings of the brain?

 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.