Who Am I? (And Who Are You?)

Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist who has spent his life researching the functioning of the brain.  His research has led him to offer a number of theories on how neurobiology influences our thoughts, decisions, feelings and actions.

His latest work is centred on our sense of self – that inexplicable feeling we all experience of having a distinct self.  Sometimes this self is clouded, sometimes confused but there is always, within every human being, a strong consciousness of self.

Here he speaks about some of his theories surrounding this fascinating subject –

American Psycho?

In his book, The Protest Psychosis, psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl examines the incidence and diagnosis of schizophrenia in the United States.

Up until the 1950s most patients diagnosed with schizophrenia were women who were unwilling, or unable, to look after homes and families or were seen as an embarrassment to their husbands.

However, since the 1950s, schizophrenia is disproportionately diagnosed in young, African-American men.

Or as Metzl says, it has changed from being, …a disease of white docility to one of “Negro” hostility…(1)

Metzl makes a case for a link between clinical changes in the understanding of schizophrenia during the 1960s and 70s and the rising civil rights movement in America.

During this time, schizophrenia changed from being,  …a disease that was nurtured to one that was feared. (2)  One where, …in its worst moments, (the medical establishment) treated aspirations for liberation and civil rights as symptoms of mental illness. (3)

The lenses we use to view the world can profoundly influence our understanding of even material facts.

We see what we believe.

We see things as we are – not as they are. (Thanks to Spirit Lights the Way for that one)




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(1) Jonathan M. Metzl, The Protest Psychosis, p.11
(2) ibid
(3) ibid
Photograph: Woman’s face, Accession Number: 1978:0213:0003Maker: Silberstein, L., Dr.  – Date: ca. 1915

Suffering…what is it good for?

Evil causes suffering and evil is preventable, but even in a paradisiacal world without evil, suffering would still exist.

In the most wonderful and peaceful of worlds, completely free of war and violence and famine and prejudice, children will still die and be bereaved, people will become ill and have accidents, make mistakes – there will be natural disasters and unfortunate events. Suffering will still exist.

So.  What is the point of suffering?

Viktor Frankl, concentration camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said that suffering should be alleviated whenever possible but when it isn’t possible it presents us with an opportunity for change.

When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves. (1)

What does this mean?  Perhaps it means that suffering changes us anyway and we can either be a part of that change or allow ourselves to be formed against our will by circumstances outside of our control?

The more you plough and dig the ground the more fertile it becomes. The more you cut the branches of a tree the higher and stronger it grows. The more you put the gold in the fire the purer it becomes. The more you sharpen the steel by grinding the better it cuts. Therefore, the more sorrows one sees the more perfect one becomes…Strange it is that I love you and still I am happy that you have sorrows. (2)

Maybe the purpose of suffering is so incredibly individual that there is no one answer other than that its very inevitability suggests it does have a purpose – however hidden?

Maybe it exists so that we’ll question the things around us that seem real and permanent and important and learn to distinguish between them?

Maybe our suffering can soften our hearts so that when we see others suffer we respond?

I don’t presume to know.


(1) Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning.

(2) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, published in “Star of the West”, volume 14, number 2, May 1923.

Search For Truth

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

In Plato‘s Republic, he asks us to imagine a Cave in which prisoners live from birth. These prisoners are chained in such a way that they can’t move their heads or bodies, therefore they all face the same direction. Behind them is a screen and behind that is a fire.

The prison guards move about behind the screen and the fire casts their shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners.  This is their reality.

Plato then asks us to imagine what would happen if one of these prisoners was released. This man would first find it difficult to look at the fire in the Cave behind him. But this difficulty would be nothing compared to what would happen if he was dragged above the ground, where he would be completely blinded by the natural light.

But gradually, the released prisoner would be able to look at shadows, then reflections, then objects themselves.  After that he’d be able to bear looking at the sky at night and finally – once he’d developed an ability to see – he’d be able to look at the day-time sky and the sun itself.

This famous Simile can be interpreted in many ways but one of the most useful is to see it as a description of the search for truth.

It’s a hard job this quest. It definitely requires us to move and often to be uncomfortable.  It’s easier to stay where we are and not bother looking for the reality of things. Plato refutes the idea that real knowledge can be planted in a human mind and instead suggests that it can only be acquired by making the effort to acquire it for yourself.  Because, according to Plato,

…the capacity for knowledge is innate in each man’s mind.(1)

But also – according to Plato – getting access to this knowledge within us requires a voluntary turn towards truth.

In other words – come on out of the Cave – it’s sunny outside and who knows what wonders you’ll see if you make the effort to search for truth yourself?


(1) The Republic, Plato (To read The Simile of the Cave itself, click on More About…)

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Unique Reality and the Unique Self

The phenomenal field. Based on information fro...

The phenomenal field. Based on information from Snygg, Donald, Combs, Arthur W. (1959)

In the 1940s psychologists Donald Snygg and Arthur W. Combs introduced ‘phenomenal field theory.’ The idea was borrowed from philosophy and adopted most famously by Carl Rogers, a pioneer of Person Centred Psychology.

According to this theory, reality for every one of us consists of all experiences available at a given moment, both conscious and unconscious. In spite of the unusual name, phenomenal field theory describes a universal experience. It simply acknowledges that we all have our own unique and individual reality and that this reality is as real as anything else in the world and needs to be seen as such.

For each of us, this reality is made up of the entire world as we know and experience it. This reality includes everything – places, people, objects and experiences, our behaviours, thoughts, images and fantasies. It also includes our physical reality and how we perceive it, as well as our feelings and beliefs about everything from daily occurrences to concepts like justice, freedom and equality. It is, in effect, for each of us, our unique self and experience.

Our Stories = Our Selves

Snygg and Combs suggested that everyone has a need to preserve and enhance their unique self and that this involves more than physical survival or the satisfaction of basic needs because the body and its needs are only part of the story.

A teenager who attempts suicide, a soldier seeking martyrdom, or a prisoner on a hunger strike are not serving their bodies well.  But they are maintaining, perhaps even enhancing, their own images of who they are.  Their physical existences no longer hold the same meanings to them as they might to us. (1)

Threats to the unique self are ideally met with appropriate responses that enhance the self. But sometimes we don’t have the necessary tools to respond in a healthy way and when that is the case, we do whatever it takes to survive. Phenomenal field theory explains that each unique self has a story and no matter how illogical its actions or beliefs may appear outside itself, according to the structure of that individual, it is absolutely coherent. If we wish to understand others we need to acknowledge their unique self and the best way we can learn to do this, is to first pay attention to our own ‘selves’. Having gained some understanding of our unique selves we can more easily meet – and maybe even understand – all the unique selves around us.

TomorrowClassifying Human Experience

(1) Dr. C. George Boeree, Personality Theories, Snygg and Combs.  Psychology Department, Shippenburg University, 1998. http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/snygg&combs.html

The Laughter of the Gods

Plato's Symposium (Anselm Feuerbach, 1873)

Plato's Symposium (Anselm Feuerbach, 1873)

Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods. (1)

Knowledge is a slippery customer.  History has shown us that progress requires us not only to investigate the world but also to approach this investigation with humility.  This humility is born of the realisation that knowledge is like a ladder and while we may be definitely resting on a real rung of that ladder, there are still countless rungs above us and out of our view.

Not Visible versus Non Existent

Even the physical universe can be difficult to truly ‘know’.  Sometimes we are unable to see a phenomenon itself – even with instruments – but we can see its effects. For example,

Electrons and other sub-atomic particles are too small to be observed directly, but physicists are able to infer their properties from the tracks they leave on photographic plates. (2)

If we have such difficulty with physical phenomena that can be relatively easily proven to exist at the very least, then what about human realities such as love and hope and sadness and courage and fear and faith?

We can now ‘prove’ the existence of emotions using sophisticated machinery but even so, we cannot, truly examine their reality with machinery. A brain-image of an emotion – let’s say fear – can show the parts of the brain involved but it cannot describe in any detail the exact nature of the individual’s fear or say what is causing it or why.

But everybody who has ever experienced a strong emotion like love or fear or anger or joy knows these emotions really do exist. So, what exactly is reality? Are the objects that we can see and feel and weigh and measure the only reality? If so, what about other objects that we haven’t discovered yet but will discover in the future – such as far away planets – are they not real? Do they only become real when we discover them?

It really does seem to be the case that – He, O men, is the wisest who, like Socrates, knows his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. (3)

TomorrowUnique Reality and the Unique Self

(1) Attributed to Albert Einstein

(2) Andre Kukla and Joel Walmsley, Mind – A Historical and Philosophical Introduction to the Major Theories, p.31

(3) PlatoThe Apology, (22d-e), The Last Days of SocratesPenguin Classics.