Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Personality and the individual without a self?

Reading The Embodied Mind had an interesting twofold effect on me. On the one hand, several points intrigued me in a way that I wanted to raise my hand and strongly oppose the view that was presented, but on the other hand, a large part of the book left me cold, probably because this was the first time I came across Buddhism and meditation and the concepts are just too new to me. (Would Varela now say that I am clinging too desparately to constructivism and schema theory? Am I experiencing Cartesian anxiety?)

I am struggling the most with the idea of the selfless mind. If there is no self that “holds the mind together” than what makes us not feel lost in the world? What gives an overall sense to our experiences? And what makes our experiences individual? If there is no self, it seems to me that were each person in the state of mindfulness/awareness each person should make the same experiences. But maybe this is just my feeble attempt to understand a state of mind that I have never experienced. Varela et al. rob a large portion of personality psychology of its ground. Examples that readily jump to my mind are cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger), factors models of personality (e.g. Costa & McCrae), personality disorders that are explained with a loss of self-identity or confusion of self (e.g. borderline and schizophrenia) and so on. I could make a long list of the very basic ideas of personality psychology that need to be abandoned completely assuming a selfless mind. As I understood it, Varela et al. do not deny personality, but is personality not linked to a general feeling of “who I am”? How would Varela et al. account for and explain personality disorders?
Another point that intrigued me was their journey into neuroscience. As far as I am familiar with neuroscience/neuropsychology, in the past years there has been a lot of research on the functions of the frontal cortex. Functional MRI, PET and other imaging techniques have made new insights into the brain possible and researchers have attempted to determine whatever it is that can account for mind, consciousness and self. The frontal cortex has been identified as having executive functions, meaning it coordinates lower level functions. Parallel processes have also been identified, states that can only be explained when examining the overall brain functions and not simply local processes. Varela et al. speak of neuroscience as if it still focussed on sequential processes only, but as far as I know, these times have passed.

The last point I would like to make is, that on one of the very first pages where Varela et al. present a conceptual map of the cognitive sciences, I feel that there are at least two names missing. The first is that of Vygotsky and the second is that of Lave who published our previous reading of Situated Learning in the same year as The Embodied Mind was published. Although Lave comes from an anthropological background, her ideas seem to have some overlap with what Varela et al. propose as an alternative to the cognitive science approaches. They state that enactive means “cognition is not the representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs.” (p.9) Lave and supporters of the situated approach also proposed that the world and the individual mind mutually constitute and change each other. They added a social dimension to these interactions, but still it seems to me that situated and enactive are not as far from each other as Varela might have thought.



5 Comments:

Blogger mdl said...

Hello there, I like your questions about personality. On page 197, they describe three "conditions" that "living organisms satisfy. This situation is not true of systems in general...it is true of those kinds of beings that we are, namely, living systems." This was a place in the text that I responded to on a weird level. "But I'm not just a system..." I'm curious, how do you see the theories in this book somehow invalidating or not interacting with the theories in pyschology that you mention? I guess that's an awfully "baggy" question I'm asking.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Annie said...

lb, I totally agree with you. I didn't read any posts before writing my own, but now I see that you have expressed my own thoughts--more thoroughly than I did. I found The Embodied Mind to be interesting, but not readily applicable in the classroom.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Anthony M. said...

" If there is no self that “holds the mind together” than what makes us not feel lost in the world? What gives an overall sense to our experiences?" I think Varela and co. would ask you if you really never "feel lost in the world" and if your experiences all make sense overall. Mindfulness meditation allows you to notice that this stable, solid foundation is not really there. They don't deny that you have a feeling of "who I am," but they are saying that attempts to find a consistent, coherent basis for this feeling always fail. But the feeling of "I am something" still remains. Also implicit in their theory (though maybe they would hate for me to call it that) is, I think, an understanding that different people might have very different senses their self. Personality disorders might then be accounted for as different ways of feeling one's "self".

I also feel I should mention that I constantly notice the lack of coherence in my experiences when, for example, I'm reading a book and my mind wanders to something totally unrelated, or when I've tried to respond to someone's post and realize that I I've actually written something totally unrelated.

7:32 PM  
Blogger asw said...

IB-
I thought your critique of the authors excluding Vygotsky from the conceptual map was an interesting point. I guess they were limiting their discussion to the areas of philosophy, cognitive science and psychology --- but perhaps in this case they felt that educational psychology was not an area they were comfortable in addressing in this text since none of them represented that field specifically? Not sure...but good point...

8:17 PM  
Blogger gt said...

I suspect this may not be an uncommon response to The Embodied Mind. Varela et al describe the person realizing her groundlessness and grasping for some new ground, eventually losing confidence in the quest for "self" but prefering to continue believing in the unbelievable rather than accepting the need to move on to a new idea. You seem to be in the process of actively denying your groundlessness. I'm wondering why this response was not anticipated and addressed by the authors.

3:47 PM  

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