By Philip Harland
An earlier version of this article appeared in ‘The Model’ magazine, Edition 2 , 2006
“Who translates, corrupts” Anon
Master Lieh Tzu asked gatekeeper Yin, “How can I walk underwater and not drown,
move through fire without burning, and pass amongst the multitude of forms of life
Gatekeeper Yin replied, “You must move within limits which have no limit; be secluded within boundaries which have no beginning; and journey to where both the start and the end of all life is.”
“How can I do this?” asked Lieh Tzu.
Gatekeeper Yin replied, “You must nourish your original breath.”
My thesis is simple: we each have a mind of our own. A ‘personal mind’, the American psychologist William James called it. A unique, extraordinary labyrinth of neural networks to which no-one else can have real access. Any process aiming to help us change our minds for developmental or therapeutic reasons must start from the premise that the choice must be ours alone.
What is this passion for?
Mind is what the brain does. It is the word we give to our experience of the brain’s activity.1 I shall use the terms ‘mind’, ‘brain’, ‘mind~body’ and body~brain’ more or less interchangeably here, and ask forgiveness of those who still believe that the mind is somehow independent of the brain. I think of myself, as I think of you, as one complete system, even if I notice bits missing occasionally. And I have no difficulty believing that the inconceivably complex workings of the brain-in-the-body are perfectly capable of producing my experience of mind, consciousness and self, though I am happy to define these as emergent properties of body~brain processes, at least until the day when nanotechnology allows us to upload our minds onto computers and survive without biology, as some scientists predict, when we may all have to reconsider our definitions of, and beliefs about, existence.
My brain contains about 100 billion neurons, or brain cells, which give me an enormous capacity for difference from the 100 billion or so in your brain. Every one of those 100 billion neurons has an average of 2,000 synaptic connections to other neurons. I don’t advise you to try this, but if you were to calculate the number of connections possible between 100 billion neurons with 2,000 synapses (100 billion times 100 billion times 100 billion and so on and so on), you would end up with a phenomenal sum greater than the number of fundamental particles in the known universe.2 This may give you a hint of your capacity for difference. You live in an enchanted forest, a measureless web of brilliant threads that are both purposeful and capricious: at times knotted, matted, pained and perplexed; at other times dazzling, luminous, original. And if ever your brain feels like what Virginia Woolf once called “the most unaccountable of machinery – always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud,” you may want to ask yourself, as she did, “Why? What is this passion for?”
The logic of natural selection would say that mind evolved to replicate as many as possible of the genes that created it: to grow itself. It began life as an information processor that learnt to evaluate – to utilize or reject information – and the logical outcome of this was our capacity to have preferences, to imagine and plan. As a psychotherapist, a species that evolved long after natural selection had produced animals smart enough to be capable of self-reflection, I suggest that the primary purpose of the mind now must be to know itself. As best it can.
Our brains form a million new connections every second of our lives. As the activation of this multitude of intimate couplings varies enormously in any one person from one second to the next, it is obvious that every manifestation of any particular combination in any one mind, especially when ninety-nine per cent of the activity takes place in the unconscious, conspire to make that mind wholly and unknowingly different to any other. We are, no doubt about it, exquisitely and exceptionally ourselves. And one of the great challenges of life in the 21st century, perhaps its greatest, is to know more about who we are – and, knowing more, to make more of it.
The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire declared that individuality mattered more than conformity. His was a voice of passion and reason challenging the mindless compliance and religious intolerance of pre-revolutionary France. The battle for minds is still being fought across the globe, but the cri de coeur of a civilized society is the same now as it always has been: let people be different!
I grew up in a district of Yorkshire that enjoyed a strong community feeling at the expense of considerable social conformity. Differences were, to put it mildly, undesirable, and this resulted in a certain amount of what we call in the trade ‘deceit and denial’. Although my paternal grandparents lived in the next street I never met them, because for some reason that was never discussed they had cut off my father when he married my mother. Meanwhile my great-grandmother would have nothing to do with her daughter, my maternal grandmother – who lived in the house opposite – because she was a music-hall singer and divorced (I don’t know which was thought worse at the time). Good material for local gossip, you would have thought, but no-one even mentioned these interesting things. I grew up on the premise that everything was fine and that everyone was alike. Later when I began to wonder a bit I was reassured by geneticists who pointed out that the six billion of us who inhabit the earth are in fact very closely related, and by mathematicians who calculated that we only need twenty-four acquaintances to connect randomly with every other person on the planet. After many years of re-education – bless the poor people who were a part of my learning – I can happily say now that I find our individuality, our singularity, our multiple peculiarities, endlessly fascinating.
Where do our differences come from? Charles Darwin declared that divergence of character derived from the process of natural selection, and with good reason: “During the incessant struggle of all species to increase in numbers, the more diversified these descendants become, the better will be their chances of succeeding in the battle of life.”3 Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker notes the way that sexual reproduction results in a unique scrambling of the genes of unrelated people; how random variations in our neurology produce brains that differ structurally; how our inimitable biographical histories and unreplicable collections of memories and desires make each of us qualitatively unalike. Natural selection, says Pinker, is the homogenizing force within a species that eliminates the vast majority of obvious design variants that are not improvements, while at the same time producing a proliferation of tiny differences between us that result in endless and enduring variety.
Identical twins are a case in point. They share the same DNA, but can have quite different personalities. The Iranian twins Ladan and Laleh Bijani spent twenty-nine years conjoined at the head, their brains fused together, yet the twins said they felt like two completely separate individuals. “We have different world views,” said Ladan, “we have different lifestyles, we think very differently about issues.” They even managed to pursue different careers. Ladan was studying law, and Laleh journalism. Sadly, they died in a Singapore hospital in 2003 in an attempt to separate them.
In 2001 in Lexington, South Carolina, identical quadruplets Grace, Emily, Mary Claire and Anna Mathias were born only thirty seconds apart, but all developed unique characters. When they were four years old their mother Allison said of them, “I have a leader, a – I hate to say – a whiner, and then somebody who thinks she’s the boss, and I have a teaser.” According to their father Steve, “They get along wonderfully, but fight famously.”
“Internal difference is where the meanings are”, wrote Emily Dickinson. The taste of blueberries, the smell of coffee, my sensations of pain and joy, have an embodied meaning for me that is mine alone.
Scientists are beginning to acknowledge the subjectivity of data gathered for scientific research, accepting that nothing can be known unless someone has observed it, and that the fact of observation – this would seem obvious to anyone but a certain kind of scientist, perhaps – produces subjective, rather than objective, information. The biologist Francisco Varela made a plea for the validity of subjectively-sourced science in a 1996 paper ‘Neurophenomenology’. He called it ‘first-person reporting’, and suggested that the detailed phenomenological examination of human experience (that is, via the senses rather than by intuition or reasoning) required a revolution in scientific thinking and a complete change in the way science was taught. “We need to introduce new first person methodologies way beyond those we have at the moment,” Varela observed in 1996. “We are extremely naïve. It’s like people before Galileo looking at the sky and thinking that they were doing astronomy.”5
Clean facilitation is directly concerned with first-person reporting. Information is elicited directly, without paraphrase or re-interpretation.
And then what happens?
And for you that is like what?’
The non-assumptive questioning brings abstract or cognitive concepts to phenomenological life by supporting the subject to access an inner dimension to their experience in a way they may not have done before. And what appears is ‘objectively subjective’ information, different in kind to any other.
It’s like riding a beam of light.