* This article was first posted on the "Katoptron" Site. Since it is no longer available there, I'm posting it here for those who might be interested.
Knowing yourself must surely start with how the psyche develops. Speculation about biological psychiatry as opposed by theories proposing a more spiritual approach aside, there is much to be said which is not subject to the confusion or controversy of these subjects. At the same time, not enough is usually made of the development of the human machine, and I am of the opinion that most answers to behaviour in general can be found here.
The psyche is at its formation much like a blank page, although the basis for it being a self-organising system is already present.
The psyche is at its formation much like a blank page, although the basis for it being a self-organising system is already present. Arguments can be made that this basic premise is structurally based, as well as that it is partly due to cellular memory (and thus operates on the same level as animal instincts). Both arguments have merit and can be underpinned by empirical evidence (in my opinion a dangerous thing in itself, as we tend to find evidence to fit our postulates/hypotheses – just look at how many accepted theories have been debunked throughout the ages in favour of new evidence).
In any event, this “blank page” condition does not last long. As soon as external stimuli reach the structurally functioning psyche, and note that this might be long before birth, certain cognitive connections are made. Discomfort in the womb might cause the “baby” to kick and adjust position, thereby relieving stress and also building basic motor skills, and learning has started.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. - Viktor E. Frankl
Soon after birth, millions of stimuli start bombarding this small (dare we call it a person at this stage?) human machine. Each stimulus is reacted to, and depending on the successful achievement of comfort, relief and gratification, the reaction forms part of a learned stimulus/response behavioural set. So for instance hunger=pain=cry=mommy=suckling=relief=comfort is a very universal behavioural set.
Now don’t think for a moment that you’ve outgrown this very basic stimulus/response learning. Let’s look at an example. If I mention the word “car”, an image comes to mind immediately. Everyone’s image is not the same, and your image is likely to change over time. It is the mind as a self-organising system that presents this particular image at this time. A lot of conditioning has gone into producing that particular image for you.
I can link that with other stimuli by simply mentioning or asking for related data. Asking you for associations creates a mind explosion of possible connections – each weighted according to its own relative use as related to the topic (“car” may, according to your unique programming bring up such diverse associations as “independence”, “red”, “fuel”, “accident”, etc., and this is just a small sample as an example, nor does it include secondary associations such as “accident” leading to “insurance”, “repairs”, “inconvenience”, “injury”, etc.). This is the way thinking is programmed – you form various connections, and the mind intuitively follows the widest path, which is by default the one most used.
This is best illustrated by examining how children react to input. They do not always have enough data to make logical conclusions about topics we discuss, and therefor e make cognitive jumps which we find surprising and humorous. When I was about six or seven years old, there was a lot of talk about “big brother is watching you”. I understood the idea that people were concerned about the loss of privacy and the amount of personal data government agencies had access to. At one stage there was an article that stated that they were able to follow back anyone’s garbage and sewage to its source. I saw my father spitting in the basin the next morning and, being concerned that they might arrest him asked; “Is it legal to do that?” You should have seen the puzzled look on his face as he said; “Sure, if you can wash it away.”
Humour is a form of creative intelligence in which the conclusion goes against intuitive logic and makes a surprising jump to alternative possibility - a process we find pleasurable.
Alright, out of a sea of experiences, certain events stand out as pivotal. Imagine your total experience as the floor, and the pivotal events as the legs of a table. The table top would represent your values. The pivotal events support your value system, but do not underpin every single part of it. It is on this table of values that we however live our lives and present our offering to the world. Just as guests at your table might take food, eat and mess on your floor, this process becomes cyclical as your actions lead to certain reactions becoming part of your field of experience, some of which would be pivotal and influence you to adapt your values and accordingly what you present to the world.
Another interesting fact is that every single detail of every moment of your life is recorded in the minutest detail, even when asleep or unconscious. This includes a “record” of every sensory perception. As life would be cluttered with an overload of irrelevant data if you had to sort through all data presented to you, you only bring what you consider important to your conscious stream of thought. This is easily demonstrated by thinking of the things you take note of. Imagine that you drive to work in the morning – when you get to work and I ask you about details of the journey, you would not be able to remember most of it. However, if you see an attractive woman in a car two lanes away, even if just out of the corner of your eye, you will immediately notice, look and remember this for some time after (yes, the example is slanted towards men, as they are visually attuned in this way, but examples fitting the female profile can also be found). In the same way, if you had just bought a new car, you will suddenly notice how many cars of the same make and model are on the road. What do you think had changed? The number of those cars on the road, or your “attunedness” to the stimulus?
"Lose/Win people bury a lot of feelings. And unexpressed feelings come forth later in uglier ways. Psychosomatic illnesses often are the reincarnation of cumulative resentment, deep disappointment and disillusionment repressed by the Lose/Win mentality. Disproportionate rage or anger, overreaction to minor provocatrion and cynicism are other embodiments of suppressed emotion. People who are constantly repressing, not transcending feelings toward a higher meaning find that it affects the quality of their relationships with others." - Stephen R. Covey
Your mind is also programmed to protect itself from painful events, and will suppress memories that it perceives as potentially harmful. This does not mean that the memories do not exist, it simply means that they have been labeled “sub-conscious” and are therefore not easily accessed. This presents no problem in normal circumstances, but as a similar event occurs (i.e. many of the same stimuli or sensory input occur as did in one of these events), the memory is accessed sub-consciously. This is to act as a warning system and prevent you from going where you were hurt before. Unfortunately, this does not always lead to rational behaviour.
OK, I’m not going into all the detail here, let the psychologists deal with the counseling, let the memory gurus and the hypnotists talk about accessing hidden memories. The point I wanted to make is simply this – from the above it can be seen how two people even with near identical experience can develop very differently. Add to this a lifetime of interaction with countless other similarly formed personages and their countless actions and reactions, and you can just get a glimpse of how the human world functions. Sometimes I find it more surprising that we manage to function at all, but the survival dynamic is extremely strong, and irons out many wrongs as we strive to make it through another generation.