Remembering the Self: Personal insignia depicting my integrated theory of personal development.
What we term the “self” cannot be completely divested from personality and personal growth, and the two are not mutually exclusive terms. What we recognize as an integrated and unremitting sense of self is in fact the product of an ephemeral interaction between that something which invigorates us, the vital life force, and an ambient background of fields called the external world or environment. The unique psychological worldview, the internal guidance and appraisal system, and the perceptual interface of every living human is decisively manifested, fashioned, modified, and obliterated by contingencies (i.e., time and place) not acquiescent to direct control and impermeable to conscious will. Coming to the sobering conclusion that we are all helpless beings unable to select the parents we are born to, the social and cultural programs we will be conditioned by, and liable to suffer the exact same existential crises, it then becomes easier to see others as extensions of “self” rather than entirely discrete entities; we are all but the same vital life force subjected to a set of different experiences.
What makes our identities different is the personal history associated with our specific configuration of animated matter. Our personal histories are shaped, in part, by the familial environment, the institutions to which we belong, and the societal standards, values, and ethical sensibilities of the time. On the other hand there is also an impersonal aspect to our identities–the nonphysical, enlivening, inspirited energy which animates our physical bodies and imbues it with the characteristics of movement and heat; the conscious awareness that can intermingle with the spatiotemporal dimension, learn, and encode phenomenally phenomenal memories into the mysterious web-like forms of neural architecture; and the higher “solar” intelligence within us able to make choices or veto a conglomeration of unconscious processes from reaching fruition. This phenomenon, too, may be defined as my or your “self.”
As one might surmise from the aforementioned, I take a very integrative approach to human and personal development and the manifestation of personality. There is, more often than not, veridicality and legitimacy to the epistemological assumptions of developmental theories in psychology, irrespective of whether they are corroborated by collateral clinical and experimental evidence or not. They only become limiting or problematic when they circumscribe development in a strictly linear fashion and within regimented chronological parameters, or when a cadre of proselytes or faithful followers [i.e., Freudians, Jungians, Adlerians] construe theoretical assumptions as gospel and disregard phenomena incompatible with their weltanschauung.
First and foremost, genetic loading and polygenetic linkages are not something imagined by the collective scientific prerogative. Inheriting specific mutations will make you more susceptible to experiencing certain states of consciousness, emotional hyperarousal, psychotic processes, and dementing diseases, providing the pertinent environmental risk factors are present (Plomin, DeFries, Knopik & Neiderhiser, 2013). If you carry a specific promoter polymorphism of the neuroregulin 1 gene (NRG-1) on chromosome 8, it is very possible that you will develop an affinity for creative pursuits and express honorary eminence in creative achievement but lamentably you will also be vulnerable to psychosis and schizospectrum disorders, lower working memory capacity, decreased activation of frontotemporal neural networks during cognitive processing, and hypersensitivity to harsh criticism (Keri, 2009). Inheritance of this gene is something of a double-edged sword; you would be blessed and cursed at the same time.
Interestingly, the more reductive or total-equals-the-sum-of-its-parts perspective is embodied by evolutionary psychology. In The Righteous Mind (2012), the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that members of the human species are confined to the evolutionary prison of selfish and groupish behavior. Long before the advent of a shared intentionality able to forge cultural innovations, trait selection in homo sapiens was profoundly skewed in favor of self-interest. Only the most reflexive, responsive, and dexterous in outmaneuvering other primates and organisms competing for the same natural resources would survive long enough to reproduce and pass their traits onto subsequent generations. Such an unrefined and unscrupulous mode of being, one would think. I have no doubt that hivish nature is etched into our genetic and mimetic memory, and that it serves the most noble purpose–to unite us into a phenomenal superorganism. I have no doubt that the jealousy which balloons and swells from somewhere deep within each time I see my friend’s Lotus has, from an evolutionary standpoint, a motivational purpose so that I may acquire the same or better and render myself into a desirable and eligible mate for reproduction.
Pitched at the macro level of analysis, the social school hypothesizes that behavioral outcomes are habitually motivated by a continuum of evolutionary pressures acting upon and eternally shaping the individual (Crisp, 2015). These include cognitive-based needs (i.e. understanding, belonging, and orientation within a seemingly chaotic world) related to the acquisition of purpose and stability, as well as more emotional driven ones like self-esteem and trust. One doesn’t want to displease or spur disaffection in an authority figure whose decisions may determine the fate of the collective, as Milgram found out.
Then there’s cross-cultural psychology with its emphasizes the dynamic role of cultural processes in human development. According to this lens, there is a bidirectional flow of information between the individual, the immediate environment, and the sociocultural framework encompassing certain roles and practices–three interdependent variables contained within a mutually consisting process which is in and of itself in a state of ongoing transmutation. An overarching tenet of this subfield of psychological inquiry is that the developing individual cannot be separated from the ambient sociocultural field which she influences and is influenced by throughout her spatiotemporal existence. If my mother enjoyed contemplating and adhering to the morals intricately woven into the fabric of Greek mythology, she will expose me to the same narratives and allow my conscience to be shaped accordingly.
Let’s consider some Eurocentric lenses. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs deems satisfaction of physiological and instinctual drives to take precedence over ego transcendence and self-actualization (Maslow, 2013). My grandmother, who was from rustic Greece, would always toot: “Esoteric philosophies are for the financially privileged. When you’re poor with no stable source of income the only thing you think about is how you’re going to feed your children.” According to Piaget, children in the developmental phase he termed concrete operational stage (7-10yrs) can “think” before engaging in social interaction (Young, 2011). At eight, I had the gumption to switch the deteriorating batteries of my train set with newer ones belonging to my dear cousin when nobody was looking; at nine I was unwrapping Christmas presents brought for the entire family by relatives, picking out the most interesting and appealing ones, and then claiming them as my own; and at ten I was threatening to shift the gearstick of my dad’s thrifty Kingswood from parking to reverse if my cousins capitulated to a frivolous ruse.
Prevalent in my early and mid-twenties were intermittent acts of sexual deviance and disinhibition, reflecting a superficial mind aground on the reefs of hedonism. Everything I did back then–joining fee-based websites for online dating, organizing spontaneous rendezvous with acquaintances, and forging new interpersonal connections–was motivated by the promise of sexual gratification. It just so happens that during these periods my dreams were punctuated with surreal albeit traumatic experiences of losing my prehensile phallus. Sometimes it would drop to the ground while I was meandering about naked, at others it would snap off whilst I was urinating, and at others still it would crumble in my hands. The dreams would culminate with frantic attempts to reattach it and I would frequently awake awash in perspiration and frozen in terror. Looking back, this literal case of castration anxiety is explicable as an unconscious reaction to sexual desires deemed taboo by my social conditioning and higher conscience (Freud’s punitive superego). Erupting from the unconscious was the warning that many sexual transgressions come at a cost, and so it may be better to repress these rather than placidly submit and humiliate oneself in the process. Freud decrees castration anxiety to be a salient hallmark of the Phallic Stage (3.-6yrs) in his model of psychosexual development (Miller, 2016), but in truth it could probably crop up at any time.
One other phenomenon that is often sidestepped and deserves a brief mention is the role of narrative in the role of personality development and personal growth. Narrative is a ubiquitous phenomenon, transcending epoch, place, sex, religious and spiritual orientation, and sociocultural milieu. Long before the emergence of Indo-European semantic languages, our ancestors congregated about fireplaces to listen to, to feel, and to perform engaging narratives about mass migration, the far-reaching consequences of the world flood, and the seemingly insurmountable quest of a heroic ancestor to undermine the forces of evil. Their pre-eminence in our phylogenetic history is explicable within both cultural and neural contexts: they contribute to the co-construction and transmission of culture from generation to generation whilst concurrently fashioning and maintaining sophisticated integration of left-right hemisphere and cortical-subcortical neural circuitry (Rossi, 1993). Narratives ground our experience in ways that allow for goal-directed action and progression to self-definition; they link our individual selves into a group mind like beaded pearls of a beautiful necklace; and they support the complexity and self-organization of brain function (Mehl-Madrona, 2010). A multilevel function of narrative, then, is to facilitate neural connectivity in the brain, emotional stability, psychological flexibility, and psychosomatic health.
Dan Siegel has much to say about the notion of narrative emerging, in part, as a mechanism of neural integration and coordination between the left and right hemispheres of the brain (Cozolino, 2010). The integrative neural processes occurring during formative periods of development can be vertical, dorso-ventral, or interhemispheric (Siegel, 2012). The importance of the latter, according to Trevarthen, cannot be overstated because the anterior commissures and corpus callosum combined is, “the only pathway through which the higher functions of perception and cognition, learning and voluntary motor coordination can be unified (Siegel, 2012, pp. 341).” Associational neurons in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes are the modus operandi, linking intricate representational processes of the hemispheres together (Cozolino, 2010).
From this bottom-up perspective, the persistence of disparaging and punitive messages about “self” precipitates failed neural integration which in turn releases the valves for the temporal manifestation of psychiatric disorders (Edelman & Tononi, 2000). Moreover, it just may be that the functional specialization of the two hemispheres and their different modes of processing information–with one excelling in monosemantic, linear, and intellectual processes and the other in processes of holistic, musical, artistic propensities, spatial perception, and sensory discrimination–is somehow transposed into irreconcilable and perpetual conflicts between so-called opposites like cognition and emotion, self and other, or masculine and feminine in the theatre of conscious awareness. We probably spend inordinate periods contemplating and brooding on these philosophical impasses because we’re programmed to do so. The healthier and more adjusted among us may find constructive ways of coping with and compensating for the tragic limitations and flaws of our psychoneural hardwiring, but the vast majority just end up running over the same ground and digging themselves into deeper trenches. It’s the Gordian Knot that no real-life hero can unknot, a riddle of the Theban Sphinx that no Oedipus can solve.
In any case, any personality theory needs to take into account genetically programmed differences between the sexes, aspects of behavior that are hardwired into our nervous systems and not learned from social cues. Male development is controlled, in part, by testosterone whilst female development is mediated, in part, by estrogen and progesterone. These hormones function differently in boys and girls (Sax, 2016). There’s a disparity between the sexes in the context of sexual development, with girls entering puberty as early as nine or ten and boys not moving into this stage until several years afterward. Sequence and tempo of brain maturation differs in males and females also; temporal grey matter, areas which underpin visuospatial perception and the identification of visual objects in space, appears to develop slightly faster in boys while parietal grey matter, areas involved in sensory integration, proprioception, and stereognosis, develops faster in girls (Sax, 2016). In general, the proliferation of grey matter occurs quicker and earlier in girls, intimating that the latter are developmentally ready for the acquisition of certain skills and behaviors before boys are. Information processing is also different, with connectivity in male brains especially wired for visuo-constructional and visuo-motor tasks whilst female brains tend to be adroit in balancing analytical and intuitive modes of cognition (Sax, 2016). There are obvious sociocultural implications here.
Then there’s our private inner stage with subjective thought content others aren’t privy to. We live with one foot in consensus reality and one in an internal private theatre of shadows, dreams, and artificial worlds. Though ignored, beleaguered, and disparaged by the modern science of eliminative materialism, the internal world and its compass do have a significant hand in shaping our development and life trajectory. Thinkers of the intellectual caliber of Emanuel Swedenborg, Carl Gustav Jung, and Wilson Van Dusen were all influential in mapping an inner landscape which was once the exclusive dominion of the mystic and the seer. Swedenborg, for instance, intimated that orders of existence, from the spiritual and mental to the molecular and subatomic, represent a stepping down or lapsing of the One into symbolic and literal representations to form increasingly limited orders of existence (Swedenborg, 1870).
Jung spoke about a repository of collective primordial images, the psychological archetypes, which exist, express themselves through human interactions, and fuel the recapitulation of certain tropes and narratives across time. These allegorical and symbolic images, the language of the collective unconscious, were particularly abundant in altered states and spurred Jung to make further ontological elaborations, claiming that the collective unconscious is “not a person, but something like an unceasing stream or perhaps ocean of images and figures which drift into consciousness in our dreams or in abnormal states of mind (Tacey, 2012, p 55).” One such image that continually crops up in alchemical manuscripts and is mentioned by Jung as a potent catalyst of transformation is the sol niger, the black sun (Marlan, 2008). Several years ago, I had a very vivid dream featuring just that image; the sun looked more like a black hole with spokes spinning across the sky rather than the supernal golden disc we’re all familiar with. A few days after having this dream I came up with an original and radical idea for a work of fiction.
Wilson Van Dusen’s clinical findings seem to further strengthen the case for psychological archetypes and the collective unconscious. Working with the mentally ill at Mendocino State Hospital in California for some seventeen years, the clinical psychologist Wilson Van Dusen conducted a comprehensive phenomenological investigation into the nature of his patients’ hallucinations (Van Dusen, 1970). In his clinical appraisal, Van Dusen stated that about 20% of psychotic experiences contained higher-order content, whilst about 80% contained lower-order content. The first he defined as sensory experiences that were highly feeling-related, nonverbal, and symbolic; more often than not he found that experiences of this type possessed intellectual, instructive, and creative merit, far surpassing the understanding and IQ level of the patient through which they’d manifested. These hallucinations expressed the utmost respect for personal conscience and conation and usually broadened the patient’s values. On the other hand, the lower-order were critical and malicious voices with mutable qualities, a simple and limited vocabulary, and expressed themselves as running critiques that undermined, ridiculed, threatened, and beleaguered the patient.
In The Natural Depth in Man (1979) Van Dusen describes a higher-order hallucination experienced by an elementary educated gas pipefitter which appeared in the form of a spritely female Lilliputian. Communicating through the gas pipefitter, who had no understanding of mythical, religious, and historical contexts, Van Dusen stresses that his multiple dealings with the beautiful lady who went by the epithet of “An Emanation of the Feminine Aspect of the Divine” went far in convincing him that she was, without any reasonable doubt, a master of hermeneutics; she frequently produced cosmic images, letters, and universal symbols from within herself and described the implications of archetypal myths that were unknown to both the gas pipefitter and the clinical psychologist. He claims that she possessed extrasensory powers and demonstrated them when she revealed, quite casually, that a bypass valve and differential pressure were behind unusual variances in the temperature of water coming from the same drinking fountain. According to Van Dusen there was simply no way that an individual of the gas pipefitter’s level of intelligence and cognitive capacity could ever engender or conjure such a “hallucination,” not unless some external agency was involved.
One’s natural inclination is to be suspicious and skeptical of such radical assertions, unless of course he or she experiences something uncannily similar. Several years ago, I encountered a woman from Greece proper with a very clear psychic opening. A male entity named Lucas would appear in what can only be described as dreams of preternatural clarity and disclose veracious information unbeknownst to her about people she knew. Her way of dealing with the powerful psychic opening, or at least her way of seeking validation for her supra-normal experiences, was to openly disclose private details bequeathed by Lucas to the pertinent individuals and then scry their verbal output and nonverbal behaviors for confirming or disconfirming evidence. At one stage he started to tell her things about my own trials and tribulations. They were far too specific and detailed to be coincidental or arbitrary. In one of her visionary dreams he and another "spirit guide" performed a puppet play about two "soulmates," a good "soulmate" and a "not so good soulmate". She described the narrative to me exactly as it had unfolded in dreamtime. It left me somewhat awestruck, discombobulated, and in doubt of my own sanity. In the space of a few minutes, the two entities managed to accurately capture and convey the emotional trajectory of a five-year romantic relationship I'd had that ended in heartbreak, and it was done in the most imaginative way. It smelled of creative intelligence.
I am of the sturdy opinion that there’s something, some kind of primordial creative power, that stands separate from us and yet is imperceptibly suffusing our very being and influencing us in ways that elude our intellectual understanding, evading circumscription by our logical operative cognition and its inchoate scientific tools. That’s the dimension of existence acknowledged and circumnavigated by transpersonal psychology, a discipline which is informed by the Eastern and Western esoteric traditions and formed as a subversive counterreaction to behaviorism and psychoanalysis in the 1950s. Going beyond traditional ego psychology and honoring trans-personal elements of development, it may be described as nascent, promising, and coming-to-be.
In hindsight, it appears we are all marionettes recapitulating the same circular motions within linear, co-created narratives across expanses of time. On the rare occasion we peer upwards and become aware of the prehensile forces to which we are attached with strings, the pressurized gravity of the past, and rarer still do we mobilize internal resources and twitch so that a specific self-action can thwart an imminent interaction from commencing or being carried to completion. Contingent on timing, this minor amendment to the theatrical act may have far-reaching consequences for the scene, the crescendos and diminuendos within particular scenes and acts, and sometimes the entire play and the nature of its closure. Even though we can’t quite fully comprehend who or what might be pulling the strings, the partial simulation of the world theatre we experience is lucid and detailed enough to incriminate the existence of something sublime and majestic manifesting and expressing itself in innumerable ways. In the final analysis, perhaps the ultimate developmental milestone in one’s life is to awaken to the memory of who we really are, and to start clearing with one’s bare hands the paved yellow brick road coursing back to the Emerald City, or better to say the Immortal City.
Cozolino, L. (2010). The Neuroscience of psychotherapy: Healing the social brain (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). New York: WW Norton & Company.
Crisp, K. (2015). Social psychology: A very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Edelman, G. M., & Tononi, G. (2000). A universe of consciousness: How matter becomes imagination. New York, USA: Basic Books.
Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.
Maslow, A. (2013). A theory of human motivation. Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books.
Kéri, S. (2009). Genes for psychosis and creativity: A promoter polymorphism of the Neuregulin 1 Gene is related to creativity in people with high intellectual achievement. Psychological Science, 20(9), 1070-1073.
Marlan, S. (2008). The black sun: The alchemy and art of darkness. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
Mehl-Madrona, L. (2010). Healing the mind through the power of story: the promise of narrative psychiatry. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions/Bear & Co.
Miller, P. H. (2016). Theories of developmental psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.
Plomin, R., DeFries, J. C., Knopik, V. S., & Neiderhiser, J. (2013). Behavioral genetics. (6th ed.) New York: Worth Publishers.
Rossi, E. L. (1993). The psychobiology of mind-body healing: New concepts of therapeutic hypnosis. New York: WW Norton & Company.
Sax, L. (2016). Boys adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. New York: Basic Books.
Siegel, D. J. (2012). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: Guilford Press.
Swedenborg, E. (1870). Arcana Coelestia: The heavenly arcana contained in the Holy Scriptures or Word of the Lord unfolded beginning with the Book of Genesis together with wonderful things seen in the world of spirits and in the heaven of angels. Translated from the Latin.. (Vol. 9). American Swedenborg Printing and Publishing Society.
Tacey, D. (2012). The Jung reader. New York, NY: Routledge.
Van Dusen, W. (1970). Hallucinations as a world of spirits. Psychedelic Review, 11, 60-9.
Van Dusen, W. (1981). The natural depth in man. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation Publishers.
Young, G. (2011). Development and Causality: Neo-Piagetian Perspectives. New York: Springer.