Issue #5: 'self'

Writers Award V: Self-expression should be chemical free

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by New Philosopher on February 17, 2014

Here we present the finalists of New Philosopher Writers’ Award V: self. Associate Professor Rob Selzer, from the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre took out top spot with his piece Self-expression should be chemical-free. Paul Biegler, Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University’s Centre for Human Bioethics, was awarded second place with The ill-fitting self.

Self-expression should be chemical-free

by Rob Selzer

In the halls of neuroscience the chemicals are the rock stars. Come grant writing time, it’s the proposals featuring molecules and cortical scans that draw the eyes of funding bodies. Paying researchers to just ponder upon the nature of the self doesn’t hold the same kind of attraction. Money likes a molecule, but cold-shoulders intellectual imagination.

Consequently, the pages of my psychiatry journals are crowded with peptides and monoamines eager to explain my (and your) inner world. As impressive as their pharmacodynamics and magnetic resonance images are, such biological models are by nature reductionistic. They seek to explain the self by taking it apart: by reducing the whole (the self) to its parts (the chemicals).

Even if it were possible to pinpoint the exact molecule for your every thought and your every feeling, scientists would be no better at uncovering an inner self than economists are at predicting tomorrow’s stock market. All the data in the world cannot explain or predict the self (or the stock market), because the self is more than just the sum of the brain’s chemical data.

Systems theory has a nice term for this phenomenon: emergence. Consider Lennon and McCartney. Each is a wonderful solo vocalist, but singing together they created a whole new listening experience – a harmony – which is both a product of, but different to, the sum of the parts. That harmony is an emergent phenomenon. So is life, which emerges from DNA; society, which emerges from individuals; economics from societies… As a corollary, chemicals are the substrates of the self but they are not the same as the self.

The whole/parts issue aside, Gamma-amino-butyric-acid receptor subtypes and magnetic-resonance-diffusion-tensor images fire up the scientist in me. But the human in me is left unsatisfied. Chemicals and scans are dispassionate, clinical tools. They’re objective measures emptied of subjective experience because in science, emotion is verboten. That’s the second problem with the chemicals and scans: they are qualitatively different to the experience of self, no matter how they are combined.

Let’s take a closer look at this qualitative difference. Imagine peering inside a mechanical clock to fathom its workings. Mapping the position and shape of every spring and cog might give you an understanding of how a clock tells the time, but there is a qualitative difference between telling the time and time itself. This is not a parts/whole problem, it’s different. This is about the nature of a concept being different to how it is represented. The self is ultimately an experience – which is as far removed from chemical mapping as tasting gelato is from reading its chromographic print out.

A consequence of mistaking mechanics for ‘reality’ is that this model becomes the lens for enquiry. For centuries scientists were locked into the notion of time as a fixed, linear concept because that’s how clocks function. When Einstein discarded clocks as time keepers (and relegated them to time tellers), time was understood to be a much richer concept entangled with gravity and space; the concept differs from the machine measuring it. Replace time with self, and clock with brain, and you get the picture.

The more chemicals and scans win ink in journals, the more they germinate new studies seeing the self through that paradigm. And while brain radiology and molecule research is revealing, and at times mesmerising (look at some brain scans and you’d swear you were looking at the Milky Way), they will never construct for the observer what the self is, no matter how refined the resolution. The subjective richness of what makes me, me (and you, you), is located not in a neurochemical mix or hi-res scan.

So how do we divine the self? The answer lies in its expression. In other words: the self is as the self does. That is, through my actions and my expressions I can begin to know my self. Furthermore, the expressed part of me resonates with a similar one in you, so you can recognise my inner state.

Right now I’m hungry and thinking about lunch. My description of what’s ‘in my head’ plucks memories and associations in yours, giving you a glimpse of what’s in mine. You can understand and even feel ‘my’ hunger because you’ve had occasion to feel it yourself.

In understanding more complex aspects of the self than my craving for lunch, it’s the quality of the expression that’s important. Take for example Shakespeare’s Romeo. How much do we understand, indeed feel, his intense yearning love for Juliet? His words evoke intense affects in us, so that we get how he feels. We can even predict how they will end. The tragedy and joy of his experience, his self is understood, indeed felt by us because of his words and deeds. Try that with a brain scan.

Words are not the only portal to the self.The artist Mark Rothko famously said, “A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience”. It’s hard to look at a Rothko and not feel his angst, frustration, or occasionally his joy. Not infrequently, visitors to the Tate Modern weep in front of his work, such is its evocative power – a direct transmission of the artist’s tumultuous, tragic inner self.

Music too can convey one’s inner world better than words alone. Listen to Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and you can glimpse Cobain’s frustration, rebellion, and confusion (the incomprehensible vocals adding to the effect). Likewise Dylan, Dido, Bach, Nyman communicate an internal state, moving us to resonate with them through their chords and notes.

Expression of the self, no matter the medium (painting, literature, music, comedy, poetry, dance, design, conversation…), is how we come to understand our own and other’s selves. It is how we enter the world and are perceived by it. Our subjective experience of another’s self, whilst a facsimile, is our most genuine representation of their self, much more so than knowing the chemicals in, or scans of, their head. Emotion, far from being the enemy of the science of the self, is its servant.

In my profession people come to discover their inner world in actual words and actions. Their self (indeed all our selves) can be thought of as made up of two parts: a conscious fragment that feels, thinks, acts, and the larger remainder, unconscious and mostly concealed. Mostly.

Yet the glimpses of the unconscious are what reveal us. Words, music and art must come from somewhere in their authors. The unconscious is the well that springs forth our innermost selves, and it’s deeper than a Leonard Cohen song.

Most of us don’t have the expressive talents of Shakespeare, Rothko or Dylan. But we can peek at our hidden selves by reflecting on what we think and what we do every day.

For example, yesterday my mate Hunter was fuming when we sat down to lunch. He was soon yelling at me because I hadn’t commented on his new sunglasses. Obviously it was an overreaction. It turned out his boss had unexpectedly rostered him on over the weekend. In psychological terms this is called displacement: I’m not as threatening to Hunter as his boss, thus he felt safer redirecting his anger towards me. The concept of displacement helps me understand Hunter’s internal state (and not yell back). Acting out, where one behaves in a certain way but is unaware of the reasons behind it, is another manifestation of the unconscious: You forget to call your mum, but on subsequent reflection you recognise you don’t want to face her criticism. Projection, denial, sublimation, repression, and displacement are just some of the expressions of the hidden self that proffer explanations for it. These concepts help psychotherapists understand their patients, and ultimately help individuals understand themselves, their spouses and others.

Such an understanding of the self shouldn’t detract from the wondrous advances in brain scanning and molecular biology. Watching a brain image pixelate into a rainbow of colours as its owner feels love, pain, or calculates the square root of 121 is a sight to behold. Such insights aid understanding of the biology of brain illnesses and open up new avenues for treatment. But such biological advances are just that – better representations of the mechanics of the brain. Restricting our understanding of experience of the self to a collection of bright dots would be like experiencing a Beethoven symphony by only looking at the sheet music. It is an awesome sight to be sure, but reducing the music into notation robs it of its magic. Indeed, the music itself never really exists until it is played.

Our selves emerge through constant expression and reflection. English Lit., creative writing, or piano classes will express and locate our inner worlds more genuinely than a wad of brain scans or a laboratory of chemicals. Next time you’re chatting with a stranger and you feel the chemistry sparking, ask yourself, “Do I want to engage with them some more, or analyse their brain scan?” I’ll wager engaging wins.

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