Monday, May 30, 2011

Self Talk - the Human Adaptation

This was written several decades ago. It is a shortened version. It is a different direction than most of my essays presented here. 

Shame is an important part of our shaping, see more on shame at the end. 

(There may be some confusion how I use/mean the term “self consciousness” especially the somewhat loaded term “consciousness”. The concept I am trying to convey is the self-talk, the internal talk that all of us do. Sometimes it seems like a broken record, this we call ruminating. It is “programmed” in multiple verbal and non-verbal ways from birth onward. Some of it is not even talk but “feelings” because it was communicated in the preverbal developmental period.)
HOMO spiritualis - In search of meaning

The miracle said 'I" and then was still
lost in the wing-bright sphere of his own wonder:
as if the river pause to say a river,
or thunder to self said thunder,
As once the voice had spoken, now the mind
uttered itself, and gave itself a name;
and in the instant all was changed, the world
two separate worlds became -
Conrad Aiken. Collected Poems.

The development of a complex and learned communication system in humans coupled with the highly developed feedback systems of our brain has made us a highly adaptable animal. Humans can be placed in any wide variety of environments and a way will develop for surviving in that environment. Along with learning a physical survival system, a way of human interaction will also arise.
So often the importance of language is placed solely on the exchange of information between people. This is only one side of the coin. I want to emphasize that the internal monitoring that our language ability allows is an equally important adaptation for human survival. Self-consciousness allows the developing human to learn acceptable ways of being and to have an internal monitor to regulate our behavior.

For adaptive survival, the eagle has the talon and keen eyesight, the porcupine it’s quills; we have the internal dialogues that are a coupling of our complex feedback systems and language. We have self-consciousness.

Self-consciousness is the process that allows the child to learn about and adapt to the most necessary, most complicated, and potentially most dangerous component of our environment - other humans. The human child must spend many years learning how to live. Most important are not the raw data of physical survival, but the intricacies of social behavior and acceptance.

Early in human life we “learn”, in many ways and on multiple levels, acceptable social modes of behavior. Self-consciousness is the comparative process that allows us to monitor, mediate, modify, or inhibit our individual behavior to obtain social membership. Self-consciousness generates guilt when our individual behavior is incongruent with the social behaviors we were taught. Guilt is a powerful regulator of our activities.

The human child is taught these ways of being through the family and immediate social environment. This learning begins at birth with some evidence of the emotion of shame being generated as early as 18 months. The primary teaching begins in earnest with the arrival of language ability around two years of age. A child is taught how to be angry, how to display their gender, what is valued, what is acceptable. This teaching is both verbal and nonverbal. The monitoring and constricting of behavior to conform to these teachings is accomplished by our internal self-talk feedback system. Thus it is the convergence and co-evolution of the brain’s feedback activity and language that allows for our wide range of environmental and cultural adaptability.

Do other animals have something akin to self-consciousness? Perhaps. Do other animals have communication? Yes. It is the evolutionary leap of our sophisticated language that makes such a huge difference. Survival information for all life forms is stored and available through genetic inheritance and mutation. Language metaphorically becomes the genes of a new evolution. Language adds a new dimension to this process of storing and retrieving information. Language does not supersede the genetic information system but mediates, modifies, and extends.

How do I propose that spirituality arises from self-conscious-ness? The truly revolutionary aspect of self-consciousness is that it allows us to step out of the moment. In essence, it allows us to alter our involvement with time and space. We can shape in our imagination the past or future and we can rearrange or recombine our mental contents in space.

Self-consciousness is experiencing the experience. Once again, if asked if you are happy, you must step outside whatever your particular state in order to assess that state. Self-consciousness puts us “beside” our self, looking at our self. We interrupt and manipulate time and space. In doing this we seemingly step outside the flow of life, outside the immediate. We live not in the moment. Using our self-consciousness we can rekindle and resentiment the past or we can dream and project the future. We are the director and producer of our own dramas by manipulating the sets of events, people and things.
Being in the flow (grace) is a normal and necessary state of life. Time and space are outside the awareness of other animals. They are enmeshed within it. They have no codifying language system to couple with their feedback processes to be aware of time or space, as we know it.

Self-consciousness appears to work contrary to being in the flow. The very functioning of self-consciousness interrupts and manipulates time and space. Our mental mediation of time and space seemingly outside the flow of life generates at our core a sense of separation. We are “beside” our self. This sense of separateness is subtle. If unchallenged it is at the very most a nagging feeling - a predisposition. It is a seed of doubt.

This feeling of being outside is illusory; we cannot be outside the flow and be alive. Illusion or not, this does not keep the seed of doubt, the sense of separateness, from being a main experience of all humanity.

In the best of all possible worlds this sense of being disconnected would remain subtle and far from awareness. However, the necessities of socialization amplify the aloneness. The growing child can hardly avoid dissonances and contradictions in the learnings of the social environment. Parents are not necessarily consistent either individually across time or between themselves. Depending on the individual and the environment, this illusion of disconnection is magnified in our attempts to fit into the social environment. The more dissonance the greater is the craving for belonging, hence unity.
Self-consciousness is a double-edged sword. It is our tool for meeting our need to belong in the social fabric. It allows for the monitoring of the behaviors that support membership in the social setting. On the other edge in functioning to allow us to step out of time and space, it generates at our core a feeling of separateness at best, alienation at worst.

So our most powerful adaptive tool, self-consciousness, drives us to seek unity. It drives us to find the present moment, a place without time or space. It moves us to search for the experience and the experiencing of unity with the cosmos, with the whole. This feeling of separateness, of being outside, comes up against our broadly defined living need of being in the flow, of belonging in the familial as well as the existential sense. Energy and tension are generated. Human life becomes a search, a quest towards being back in the flow, towards belonging, towards unity. This is the root of spirituality.

The creation myth in the Old Testament is a beautiful metaphor for the spiritual quest that self-consciousness brings to us. With the eating from the tree of knowledge, we come to know of ourselves. We see our nakedness. We are beside ourselves. We are banished from the garden. This is the ultimate not belonging. This is descriptive of the existential and illusory separateness that is particularly human. This has been called original sin.

Adam and Eve are exiled before finding and eating from the tree of immortality, eternal continuity. Humans are forced to face limitations, losses and death. The unfolding, evolving self can become and may continue to become more self-aware as we learn to pass through life's transitions and changes.

Not belonging with its painful feeling of shame is both bane and blessing. Shame is hurtful and hurting, often destructive. Arising from our very human need for belonging, shame can create new forms of belonging, supporting our survival and continuity.

In a relevant and soulful statement, John Lee Hooker, the blues singer and musician, said that the blues began when God told Adam and Eve to get out of the garden. Thus begins our search; a uniquely personal and human quest towards unity, towards soul.


Flexible social interaction and the broad range of environmental adaptations are emphasized as the primary adaptive advantage of self-consciousness. This reflective function and our other self-referential activities produce two other very human results. The first being technology. Although shared in a minimal way with other animals, technology is most highly developed in humans. The second, spirituality, might easily be noted as the defining characteristic of humanity although it may be a by-product of the referential process. It may also be our next step on the evolutionary road.


Self-consciousness seemingly allows us to step out of the ongoing experience of time and space. Whether we ruminate over a recent slight or recall in joyful detail a long past pleasant experience, we have removed ourselves from immediate time and space. I believe the ability to as it were step out of time and space and mentally manipulate structures and functions is at the root of technological developments.

I am defining technology as a process of modifying time and/or space by structural transformations, functional analogs, and inputting energy. These modifications are usually compressions of time and/or space but may involve expansions.

As an example, gathering and hunting was a means of subsistence for 99% of human history. It required space in square miles and fluctuated with nature’s rhythms across time. With the development of agriculture, space requirements became measured in acres and time was bounded by a specific growing season. Transportation technologies are also easily seen as examples of this definition of technology.

Technological development can be social or physical and usually involves both. Technology is one of the identifying characteristics of humanity and is a result of the same activities of manipulating time and space that determine self-consciousness.

Two modes for finding unity.
The ego has a stimulus range. It is the experiences outside this range that are the pathways to the cosmos, to the white light, to unity. The existence of a stimulation range of the ego comes from the evidence of various ways the White Light or unity is experienced. One path is the through meditation or fasting or sensory deprivation or depression. This is the “too little” end of the range. The ego needs a level of stimulation to keep it from “eating on itself”. When low input of stimulation is coupled with ritualized processes (chanting or yogic body positions or concentration on a point in space) then the underlying processes are made accessible.

When the ego receives too much stimulation in the form of whirling dervish dancing or continual sexual stimulation or psychoactive drugs or depression then it overloads and lets go of its control. Here the White Light or Cosmos explodes into experience.

Notice I have put depression in both the low and the high input. There is the depression that is the dark night of the soul where existence shrinks to a point of nonexistence. There is also a depression that is an overwhelming brain chatter. Both of these occur under perceived duress and with the loss of the ability to use earlier adaptations successfully to manage the duress.

Each person’s ego range is unique to them as well as to their experience at the particular time. The experience of the White Light can be a conscious quest or an involuntary eruption bypassing the controls of the ego.

(I don’t imagine these two modes as a continuum with individual ego in the middle. More like an island in which two oceans meet. Metaphorically, like Terra Del Fuego where the Atlantic and Pacific come together.)
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Shame is a critical part of our humanness.  Shame can be looked at as a feeling of not belonging, of exclusion from the group.  For a highly and imperatively social animal, our lifelong development of attachment/bonding is pivotal to belonging.  We have a genetically based need to find structure, process and meaning within a social context that arises from both our evolutionary path and the very composition of our information processing.  It is an interplay of biology, language, family, society, culture, and cosmology.  It is a dynamic, ongoing, relational process within ourselves and with others.

It is important to understand the core of shame is not belonging.  As a totally social animal, not belonging is a powerful motivator.  As example, shame arises when we, as children, have no socially acceptable release for our natural frustration/anger.  Or where our natural feelings of flight manifest as fear or terror are condemned.  Shame is the feeling that arises when a behavior that is manifesting a naturally occurring internal state invokes the social response of disgust; of being cast out; of not belonging.

With the social response imprinted very early on our basic survival patterns, self- consciousness acts to maintain a sense of shame whenever the disallowed internal experience occurs.  This is often below awareness because recognition of this aspect of our self is a threat to belonging; hence to survival.

Shame’s counterpart is guilt. Guilt arises from the disapproval of our behavior as opposed to rejection of our personhood.   When guilt occurs, a way is taught for rectifying our error and for the acceptable expression (no matter how convoluted) of our experience within the social context.  Guilt provides a process for continued membership in the group.  In this way it provides continued support for the “traditional” patterns of socially accepted behavior.

Shame and guilt are decidedly different experiences.  Guilt offers continued membership while shame banishes. The pathway to human belonging is channeled and powered by these two emotions of reference that arise through the functioning of self-consciousness.   I believe these two emotions of reference are primary in the processes of personal and social change. 

(The concept of emotions of reference comes from Lewis, Michael. 1992. Shame-The Exposed Self. The Free Press. N.Y.)

A few readings:

Gilbert, Paul and Andrews, B.  1998.  Shame: Interperson Behavior, Psycholpathology, and Culture.  Oxford U. Press. Oxford.

Lewis, H.B.  1987.  The Role of Shame in Symptom Formation.  Eribaum Ass.  Hillsdale, N.J.

Lewis, H.B.  1971.  Shame and Guilt in Neurosis.  International University Press. N.Y.

Lewis, Michael. 1992. Shame-The Exposed Self. The Free Press. N.Y.

Lynd, Helen Merrell.  1965.  On Shame and the Search for Identity.  Science Editions. N.Y.

Peristiany, J. G.  1966.  Honour and Shame.  University of Chicago Press.  Chicago.

Scheff, T. and Retzinger, S.  1991. Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts. Lexington Books. Massachusetts>

Schieffelin, C.  1985.  "Anger, Grief, and Shame: Toward a Kaluli Ethnopsychology."  In Person, Self, and Experience.  Edited by G. M. White and J. Kirkpatrick.  Univ. of California Press. Berkeley.

Schneider, Carl.  1977.  Shame, Exposure, Privacy.  Beacon. Boston.

Sroufe, L. Alan.  1995.  Emotional development: the organization of emotional life in the early years.  Cambridge U.  N.Y.   Page 68 for 18 month old shame.

Tangney, June and Fischer, Kurt; editors.  1995.  Self-Conscious Emotions: The Psychology of Shame, Guilt, Embarrassment, and Pride.  Guilford.  N.Y.

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