I’m not much, but I’m all I think about. — anonymous
Taking a speculative approach to rudimentary neuroscience, the seventeenth century French philosopher, Rene Descartes, hypothesized a definitive split between an individual’s mind and body—including the proposition that the human mind represents a non-material entity interacting with the body at the intersection of the pineal gland. This notion, commonly referred to as Cartesian Dualism, has been challenged and commonly rejected by ongoing empirical discoveries in modern neuroscience and developmental biology. For example, the mind is primarily understood by scientists to be a material manifestation of the brain. Subsequently, the brain consists of billions of pre-synaptic and post-synaptic neurons innervated by an electrical storm of intracranial activity preceding the emergence of conscious thoughts via a complex process of protein synthesis and synaptic plasticity. What does this mean concerning the notion of self? Are we a cohesive personality with an unmitigated core, or is the “self” a changing, fluid, and dynamic process subject to deterrence by mental illness, physical brain injuries, disease, trauma, and compromised cognition? Since I’ve never been too keen on ghosts in the machine or essentialist notions of being, these eccentric challenges to traditional narratives do not keep me up at night. However, we all know that significant threads of continuity in consciousness exist, and a conceptually cohesive persona is absolutely necessary for establishing self-esteem (Lacan warned us about the liabilities of fragmented identity). Nonetheless, we’re perpetually confronted with the counterintuitive nature of consciousness as we try to accommodate what we objectively learn with what we feel to be true. As the evolutionary biologist and polymath J. B. S. Haldane stated, “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” To antagonize an enigma, the idea of self must be re-evaluated based on various deterministic and contextual influences that challenge any preconceived notion of a true internal locus of control.
In psychotherapy, it’s important to differentiate homuncular functionalism (the brain’s relational response to sensory inputs) from Freudian terminology regarding the concept of ego (the reality principle for regulating the id). In addition, common parlance associates the word ego with arrogance and narcissism. However, another way of thinking about the ego is how an individual processes stimuli, the perceived impact of stimuli on personal and social identity, and how one interacts accordingly with others in a given environment. Two additional terms of distinction are egosyntonic (behaviors and values that are congruent with identity) and egodystonic (behaviors and values that are in conflict with identity). As choices for interaction are internally assessed, biochemical processes and complex neuronal activity—sculpted by millions of years of evolution— precede conscious awareness. Likewise, the social construction of autonomous egos can be re-examined by exploring how genetics, neurological disorders, and environmental influences often determine human behavior in social contexts. For example, consider the case of Charles Joseph Whitman, the University of Texas student and former Marine who killed 16 people and wounded 32 others during a shooting rampage on and around the Austin campus on August 1, 1966. During an autopsy it was discovered that an aggressive brain tumor, along with other developmental traumas endured throughout his formative years, were negatively affecting Whitman’s mental state. Likewise, there are parallel examples of how neurological disorders can induce other criminal behaviors such as pedophilia and kleptomania.
Should a lottery of bad genetics, bad upbringing, and bad luck demand that one is completely accountable for their actions? Of course, psychiatric analysis and specialized approaches to criminal sentencing do not diminish the importance of keeping such individuals quarantined from social interactions within the general public (pending a critical understanding of all causative factors). Nonetheless, an estimated thirty percent of incarcerated criminals suffer from some form of mental illness. Given this premise for culpability, one can immediately speculate about other psychosocial implications concerning such maladies as Alzheimer’s disease, depression, addiction, PTSD, and psychosis. Does one “choose” to be clinically depressed or to be rendered incapacitated by trauma? Furthermore, is someone who happens to be neurologically affected by command hallucinations the architect of their world view or liable for their conduct? If various parts of the brain are already competing for space in relation to causal behavior, doesn’t the introduction of an uncontrollable variable compromise moral accountability? Many will contend that this way of looking at the brain constitutes a slippery slope argument which will inevitably lead to moral relativism or an avoidance of personal responsibility. However, it seems more obvious that an opportunity presents itself for uncovering neurobiological etiology in a profound way that could become a catalyst for paradigm changes in counseling, understanding mental illness, rehabilitation, and the teaching of abnormal psychology. Coincidentally, the idea of the self as a process, rather than a default position, vindicates some principles of Buddhism much in the same way that the philosophical atomists of Greek antiquity anticipated particle physics.
Biology changes our behavior, and because we’re biological creatures, unconscious shifts in neurophysiology can determine consequential outcomes—even for those who meet the mental health standard for normality. Nonetheless, the idea of challenging a “core self” that is impervious to changes in neurobiology or the environment is not entirely new. Philosophers such as Heraclitus, David Hume, and William James have already discussed the problematic nature of an immutable causa sui throughout previous epochs. More recently, the contemporary German philosopher Thomas Metzinger explores ideas of identity, choice, and determinism in relation to the cognitive sciences in a book entitled The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. In addition, the psychologist Bruce Hood offers insight concerning these topics in his work The Self Delusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity.
What we traditionally think of as unrestrained volition emanating from a static essence represents a notion of conceptual antiquity given what we now understand about various mechanisms at the level of the brain. The pragmatic value of discursive reasoning must be squared with conceding that the mechanics of cognition behave deterministically. Autonoetic consciousness (the ability to plan for the future while reflecting on the past) does not provide special immunity from the Standard Model’s unavoidable implications for how neuronal circuitry functions. Of course, the human brain must cultivate a psychologically useful operating template to navigate daily interactions in a complex social atmosphere, but how these platforms of cognition are generated is the subject of unseen chains of causality. Independent decisions are ironically dependent, conditional, and situational. Likewise, the vagaries of circumstance have a debilitating effect on assumed volition rather than acting as a source of contra-causal discretion. Subsequently, our deep concern for the role of responsibility in society and how intentions constitute identity remains on trial.
In the final analysis, continued research in neuroscience will certainly enlighten methodological approaches to psychotherapy by further refining our understanding of cognitive dynamics and behavioral manifestations in an ever-changing, increasingly complex, and turbulent world. I would urge mental health practitioners to invest some time familiarizing themselves with this subject matter as it will perpetually resurface with the ongoing fascination and study of human consciousness. Or am “I” misunderstood?