Monday, July 29, 2013

Sex and a Person's True Colors

We have all been witness to the degrading spectacle of a celebrity or politician apologizing for a sexual transgression, promising it will never happen again, and then it does. We laugh and ridicule but may privately think, "There but for the grace of God, go I". Or we witness the denial of a sexual violation that appears to have been repeated with apparent impunity.

Problematic sexual behavior is particularly difficult for some to renounce or control, but this can be said for many of our “appetites”. When these appetites become troubles and narrow a person’s world sufficiently we call it an addiction. How can we renounce or ignore what is part of our nature? 

We wouldn’t have much country music without our proclivity to repeat mistakes, to return to the same bad relationship or repeatedly find love in all the wrong places.  Opera would have lost half its repertoire. The Greeks would be known only for their comedies.

Why do we sometimes act in such a self-defeating manner? Psychoanalysis has theoretical explanations, a “return of the repressed”, a “return to the bad object” and the “repetition compulsion”.  Freud took libidinal desire as a need to be expressed, tamed, displaced or sublimated. But come hell or high water, sexual desire is a fundamental feature of life. It will have its say.

Once a pattern of arousal has been established, it is almost impossible to extinguish. Like it or not, what turns us on, turns us on.

Freud, and nearly everyone else, points out that visceral pleasure is a fundamental organizer of behavior. If it feels good, a person has a reason to do it.  But sometimes we have reason not to express it, since prudent, aesthetic and ethical reasons also count. How we weigh these motives is a significant personal characteristic. No matter how intense the want or desire, we may have stronger reasons to do something else. This is central to civil life (and some of its discontents).

Unless behavior is coerced, misconceived, or accidental, it is intentional and expresses something a person wants to do. “I can’t help myself” is equivalent to, "I do not have sufficient reasons to override what I am doing".

A maxim and a reminder: If a person recognizes an opportunity to do something he wants, he has reason to do it unless he has a stronger reason not to. 

Here is a Descriptive Psychological formula that reflects the relationship between opportunity, motive and behavior.

The Relationship Formula

“X” has a given relationship “R” to “P”
The behavior of “X” in respect to “P” will express “R”
1) “X” doesn’t recognize the relationship for what it is.
2) “X” is acting on another relationship that takes priority.
3) “X” is unable to act in ways that express that relationship.
4) “X” mistakenly believes his behavior reflected that relationship.
5) “X” miscalculates or the behavior miscarries.

Sexual desire is both a want and a need.  Its needful aspect may be forceful, driven. Sexual arousal is insistent, preoccupying.  It carries a motivational weight akin to hunger. Some people are hungrier than others. Some people find their hungers overwhelming. Obviously. This is why a promise to contain or stop is hard to keep.  

Renunciation or better self-control is even more difficult if other non hedonic core perspectives are underdeveloped, undervalued or less available. If ethics and aesthetics don’t count for much, if prudential self-protection is overridden by unrealistic self-regard and entitlement, they may not provide sufficient counterweight.  

A person’s life has patterns defined by what they actually find compelling and significant that may not be what they claim as their "true colors".  These patterns establish some of the dramatic through-lines that characterize an individual.  Some significant motives, conscious or unconscious, acknowledged or not, are implemented in spite a person claiming they are out of character. Although the community might hope that people know what they are up to, some unfortunate souls only recognize themselves after the damage has been done.  Even then, they might not recognize themselves. Or they do know, but their ideology, religion, or politics make them reluctant to honestly self-examine and confront what they need to know about themselves. The under-examined is difficult to socialize and control. 

In a curious essay, Freud asked whether people should take responsibility for their dreams. In spite of seeing dreams as mostly non deliberate mental activity, he answered yes.  It would be negligent not to, he thought. If the dreamer doesn’t hold himself responsible for his dreams, his neighbors will. By this Freud meant that to the extent dreams reveal a person’s significant dilemmas and concerns, they also show something about a person's character and potential actions. The dream is a second opinion of sorts, unclearly pointing to what the dreamer is consciously and unconsciously considering. The moral point of Freud's psychoanalytic treatment was to examine people’s under examined qualities, qualities otherwise unavailable for deliberation. If you don’t know what you are doing, it is very difficult to do something else instead.

The unexamined or denied is hard to self-manage. Being hidden from view is not the same as being gone. It's more like lurking.

Consciously or unconsciously, some may select a religious or social role in the hope that self-control will follow. It often doesn't.

People may join the priesthood or align with a political ideology hoping that their problematic desires will be kept in check. But that outcome is only likely if there is sufficient self-understanding, a lack of opportunity to act out, and the balance of stronger intrinsic values.

Promises are kept or not. If there is an underdeveloped or insufficient prudent, aesthetic or ethical perspective, a pattern of wanton disregard, arrogance and sexuality may have no adequate counter-balance, promises aside. 

Plato told him....

Some of these themes are explored in the posting, Confusions and Uncertainty in Sexual Feeling and IdentityAnd in the posting, Transgression, Denial, and Keeping Two Sets of Books.

 An object lesson: The Wreckage of Anthony Weiner


The Judgment Diagram is the format for understanding how a person weighs his or her circumstances, forms an appraisal (with or without deliberation), and acts accordingly. A person's "true colors" are revealed by the weights they give their various reasons to act one way or another. This diagram serves as the basis for the Psychodynamic Judgment Diagram where unconscious and under-examined motives are included in the judgment.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dementia, Through-Lines and the Diminished Person

Recently, The Boston Descriptive Psychology Study Group spent an afternoon discussing the effects of dementia. We applied the paradigm case formulation of persons described in "What is a Person? How can we be sure?"  Our starting point was the effect dementia has on the ability to engage in Deliberate Action.  

Deliberate action requires the ability to choose or select a course of action among alternative ways of reaching a goal. This is more relevant for some motivational perspectives than others and is a central feature of action guided by ethical or aesthetic perspectives.  These motivational categories intrinsically require the possibility of renouncing an option.  I am going to take the “high road”, not the “low road”. Choice may be less essential when behavior is guided by hedonic or prudential concerns. I keep doing it because it feels good.   That’s scorching hot. I’m not going to touch it.

We wondered what happens when patterns of behavior are no longer as informed by a code of ethics and aesthetics as they would be if the person was better able to deliberate. What happens if we remove a significant degree of ethics and aesthetics from the human equation?  

As a person, I have the job of actor, observer and critic.  As an actor, I am the author of my behavior. As an observer, I note what is happening.  As a critic, I evaluate how I’m doing, and if it isn’t to my satisfaction, I attempt to change course. Observer and critic functions are hobbled in dementia. Self-regulation suffers. 

A paradigm case person is an adult with all the powers and dispositions to successfully act in the relevant communities of his or her culture.  The actual pattern of a person’s life has the qualities of a story or narrative. This is called a Dramaturgical Pattern in Descriptive Psychology.  All the world’s a stage. 

Dramaturgical patterns are partly organized by ongoing activity that the actor finds significant and that observer-critics will identify as “in character”.  This is a pattern of "through-lines" that corresponds to what a person is up to when they perform various social practices that may resemble each other only in their significance. For example, a person’s life might be identified by consistent attempts to act with modesty, tact and compassion. This could result in a deferential pattern of being overly careful to be fair, expressed as "others come first".  A mild mannered politeness might become the style of performance.  What happens if such a person suffers dementia?

If dementia interferes with the quality of deliberation, it impedes judgments that require the ability to choose among alternatives. A demented state might disrupt significant practices that would have been influenced by a person’s ethical and aesthetic perspectives of fairness and manners.  Of course, deliberate actions that concern a person's hedonic and prudent perspectives would also suffer, but ethical and aesthetic judgment is more vulnerable. To the extent that an ethical and aesthetic appreciation of a social practice's significance is not adequately present, we could expect hedonic and prudent behaviors to be less regulated. It would be unsurprising for behavior to become more pleasure-seeking, impulsively sexual, overly hostile, competitive or unduly concerned with safety.

A diminished aesthetic perspective can create other fundamental disruptions in a person's status. The loss of an adequate aesthetic perspective corresponds to a loss of concern with the question of what is fitting or not fitting given the sort of person I am. Self-maintenance, concerns with personal integrity, and self-status assignments falter as appraisals of self and world are made with less reference to what fits.

Consider different end of life dramas.  With “death as an advisor”, the knowledge of nearing the end of one's days may carry profound reason to approach the time remaining with a heightened ethical and aesthetic resolve. To the extent a person remains able to engage in deliberate action, the full use of hedonic, prudent, ethical and aesthetic judgment potentially fosters a more dignified ending than what dementia ordains. 

A dynamic wrinkle:  aesthetic judgment involves a range of social, intellectual and artistic values of truth, rigor, objectivity, closure, beauty, elegance and fit. Ethics concerns fairness, justice, the “level playing field”, the Golden Rule and similar notions. The competence needed to maintain the ability to successful employ these perspectives, i.e., the ability to engage in Deliberate Action, probably changes in different ways given different degrees of proficiency, value and locations of damage. Change in any area would result in a dynamic change across a variety of actions dependent on the contingent or independent nature of the domains affected.  All of this will be compounded by the memory disruptions and other loses of competence, also hallmarks of dementia. 

One consequence of a diminished capacity for deliberate action is a diminished empathy with a corresponding failure to appreciate what other people can tolerate. Having less perspective, understanding is limited. Behavior is not well tailored to what the other will feel.

A person whose life had a through-line of mindfully polite, compassionate action, who always practiced deference and tact, in a state of diminished capacity may now behave without accurate caring regard.

But does dementia allow a person’s “true colors” to finally appear? Probably no more than the nastiness that can come out in rage. This un-nuanced expression of frustration shows what would not have been expressed before. It is not necessarily a glimpse at something basic and true that was always hidden. Instead, ordinary human ambivalence is no longer competently managed by the kindness and compassion that counted for more.

Complex interdependent and intimate relationships invariably carry a degree of ambivalence. Emotionally competent adults learn to express this carefully. In the absence of a robust capacity to engage in Deliberate Action, ambivalence can devolve into an oscillation of love and hate, of poorly modulated idealization and devaluation. This is not a person's "true colors" but only a black and white shadow of what was there before. 

                    Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
                    nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.  Catullus

Some thoughts that followed reading in the NY Times, Sex, Dementia and a Husband on Trial at Age 78:

Intimate love is wonderful.  Loving is first person actor's knowledge, fundamental to how an intimate relationship is recognized. I can forget your name and our social and kinship connection and still know, without doubt, who you are to me. It's how I feel when I am near you. 

With love of a certain sort, empathy and intimacy define a through-line of relatedness. We seek the comfort, perhaps the excitement, of each other's presence, appreciating the significance of each other's intentions and trusting that our vulnerability is welcome and safe. This is heart felt knowing. It holds on. 

An empirical vindication?: Your Brain, Your Disease, Your Self

Friday, July 12, 2013

What Are the Conceptual Problems in Psychology and Psychoanalysis?

"The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by calling it a young science....For in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion....
The existence of experimental methods make us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and methods pass one another by." Ludwig Wittgenstein

The Boston Descriptive Psychology Study Group wants to work on conceptual problems in Psychology, Neuroscience and Psychoanalysis for fall projects. Can you help identify some issues for us?  We meet as a bi weekly tutorial and discussion group. We try to build non theoretical platforms that can be used to compare theories and to translate concepts into practice. We make use of Descriptive Psychology in sorting out the formal or logical structure of our subject matter. An example of this can be found in the entry on Empathy and the Problem of Definition.  If you'd like to know "What is Descriptive Psychology?"  click the link.

Please visit our FACEBOOK site for a collection of basic resources and discussion.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ordinary Empathy

"A person's behavior goes right, if it doesn't go wrong in one of the ways it can go wrong." Peter Ossorio, Place, 1998

Behavior going right requires no explanation.  Successful behavior is ordinary. Empathy is ordinary in the same way.

Empathy is a fundamental feature of emotional competence.  In the average expected, good enough maturation, people naturally acquire empathic skills as they interact with others, but some circumstances and manners of parenting are more conducive to fostering empathy than others. 

We don't always need to be empathic, but when a situation calls for mutual understanding, a lack of empathy requires explanation. Under normal circumstances, people make sense to each other, and when they don't, we expect people to be able to figure out why. 

Without the right degree of empathy, ordinary social interaction would be hard.  Negotiation would be difficult.  Moral discourse would be impossible.  Improvisational play would be stilted, at best.

Empathic skill is a standing condition of normal personality, a competence required for engaging in social practices if those practices are to have the character of “flow”, attunement, harmony, or the dance-like features of improvisational play.  Intimacy requires empathy.  Love, work and play are based on this shared competence.

When there isn't sufficient empathic skill there's pathology.   Such deficits interfere with the ability to engage in certain vital relationships, especially where compassion and intimacy are required.

Empathy is the core of our intimate acts. Intimacy is understood as empathy plus a willingness to share vulnerability. In an intimate act, we let someone else see our most vulnerable features. Intimacy involves the risk and the hope that our vulnerability will be treated carefully and kindly.

Empathic skill employed in the service of sadism, hostility, or coercive manipulation is a miscarriage of empathy, an exploitation of the accurate recognition of another person. It is not empathy when the goal of the understanding is exploitation or harm. This is something else entirely.

Two "operational" definitions:  1.  We experience someone as empathic when they demonstrate that they appreciate our intentions and the significance of our actions in a manner that respects our toleration for being known.  2.  Empathic action requires an appreciation of what a person intends through recognizing their reasons for action, what they know about their relevant circumstances, what skill or competence they have relevant to what they are trying to do, and the significance of this performance to them. Empathic action involves acknowledging this without anyone feeling overwhelmed or violated.

The second definition provides a parametric analysis of empathy, an operational definition and a serviceable tool for empathy training, psychotherapy, and supervision.   The parameters that the empathic actor attends implicitly or mindfully are the other’s reasons for action (Wants), their knowledge of their circumstances (Knows), their self recognized skills to achieve what they want in the relevant circumstances (Knows How), and the significance of success or failure in accomplishing the desired outcome (Significance).  The empathic actor implicitly or mindfully recognizes the specific content of these parameters and is careful to express this understanding in a  way that can be tolerated. In situations that result in empathic failure, reflection on these parameters can usefully serve attempts to regain an empathic connection. These parameters can provide a set of questions for establishing or regaining empathy. 

A claim: This formulation can be a map for any empathic practice.  It provides a method for a systematic and comparative analysis across ages, cultures, and species. 

A set of questions to ask yourself:

1.  Given their knowledge of the overall current circumstances, what does this person want and value?  (And do we share an understanding of what the overall circumstance calls for?)

2. What exactly do they recognize in their circumstance relevant to what they want or value? (And do we share a common appreciation of the relevant circumstances?)

3. What do they know how to do, what skills do they possess, given what they see as their current opportunity or dilemma? (And are they aware of having the needed competencies).

4. What is the significance to them of how they behave in these circumstances?

5. What personal characteristics of theirs are involved or expressed?

6. Can they tolerate the way I express what I understand about them?

This is a further elaboration of Empathy and the Problem of Definition.  The methods of paradigm case formulation and parametric analysis are described there.  See also Intentional Action, Empathy and Psychotherapy.

Special thanks to Pam Evans and CJ Stone for offering far better ways to say what I had expressed awkwardly.