I learned a new word this week: autonoetic. It means something like the ability to place one’s self in the scene or narrative or situation as part of episodic memory, i.e., memory for one’s own life experiences. Research shows that we can remember our autobiography through two perspectives, 1stperson (we see the experience through our own eyes) or 3rd (we see the ourselves in the experience like a movie). Seems important.
One of the pleasures of reading widely is coming to understand different approaches to the same phenomena, and learning this word has brought some of these issues to the front of my mind. In my thinking here and in my book (forthcoming someday) I consider that what we call the self arises from two basic mental functions. The first is a sense of agency—we do and we know that it is us doing; the second is our sense of autobiographical experience, what Endel Tulving called episodic memory (as distinct from semantic and procedural memories). So I guess that one’s self is some integrated, amalgamated hodgepodge of those, and a human hodgepodge is one that grows out of social connection into an identity, i.e., a self that operates through its social roles.
I read a book a good while ago now by the great Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind, in which he self-corrects his own previous thinking; to wit, he had thought that the neuropsychological construct of a self was not needed or justified but as he studied the brain some more, he came to understand that we did have a self. It is a good book and he knows brain science as few in the world do. Now more recently I read what is described as a landmark book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experienceby Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, wherein they endeavor to bring together the twin strands of cognitive psychology and Buddhism. Their basis for doing so is the challenge that what we call the self is quite illusionary. They state this claim explicitly: “all of the reflective traditions in human history—philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, religion, meditation—have challenged the naïve sense of self. No tradition has ever claimed to discover an independent, fixed, or unitary self”
They go on to quote David Hume: “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never observe anything but the perception.” Varela, Thompson and Rosch maintain that this “insight directly contradicts our ongoing sense of self,” and that this comports with the long and thoughtful tradition in Buddhism that the self is an illusion. This is also consistent with some Hindu traditions, e.g., the Yoga Sutra attributed to Patanjali from around the second century BCE. The realization through meditation and other practices that one’s self is an illusion would seem a step towards enlightenment.
Alas, I am going to walk on another path for a moment, postponing my meditative quest for enlightenment a short while. I learned my new word, ‘autonoetic,’ reading a 2011 article by Robyn Fivush, “The Development of Autobiographical Memory.” In an excellent, well thought out paper, Dr. Fivush lays out the conceptual prerequisites for autobiographical memory and its importance to our human sort of mind. The first prerequisite is autonoesis, the subjective sense of self who experiences events and the second is the personal narrative of action that includes the thoughts and feelings while experiencing these events. Now you can shift perspective and call this self an illusion, but I think that even such an illusion is still a biological function. Fivush thinks autobiographical memory is “uniquely human” and that I doubt. Remember, if you will, my post from 4/8/16, “de Waal Admits Tickling Chimpanzees”, on Frans Van der Waal’s observation of a bonobo who inadvertently bit off the finger of a favorite handler and who quite clearly expressed his dismay for doing so, even some years later when the handler returned from another job to visit, that same bonobo tried to see the injured hand and seemed to re-experience the distress over its actions. Fivush also says autobiographical memory depends upon one’s social-cultural group and cites research showing the influence of maternal reminiscing style on how we create a “story of how one’s self became who one is”.
So autobiographical memory as developing from autonoesis and narrative coherence seems a pretty solid notion. Let me wander a bit further here and consider some of its implications in dreaming, Dissociative Identity Disorder, dementia and novelists. Of course I will end with a reference to Susanne Langer and return to the question of self or no self.
So, we form our episodic memories incidentally for the most part and that means when we recall them later, we reconstruct the episode according to current circumstances and purpose. We often dream some of these memories elicited from episodic memory, the information transformed into dream material. I think many dreams include a sense of self, an autonoetic perspective. Of course some dreams derive from the self’s current state, like when I dream of water sloshing over the road or the gunwales of my boat and wake up to a very full bladder. My point here is that while maybe in dreams your self is not imaged from a 3rdperson perspective (though I believe some few dream this way a good deal), your autonoesis is still operating.
My dissertation research was with a person with what is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder. At that time the diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder was gaining validity. For example, research showed different somatic, e.g., autonomic, responses for different personalities. Alters (alternate identity or personality) manifest in various ways, e.g., some know about others, some don’t, some know about the soma’s entire life, some remember only fractured episodes, etc. So each alter has some autonoesis operating in a selective manner. A person with dissociative identity disorder actually does seem able to look inside and find a self (actually more than one, the contrast perhaps making the apprehension possible) contrary to Hume’s assertion. My dissertation showed that one person’s child alter did indeed use childlike language and that as she grew up as a part of therapy to help the different alters integrate back into one, her language advanced along developmental lines.
I have written in the past about people with dementia and how resilient their musical memories are (see post 8/27/14). Therapy using ipods with playlists of songs from their youth helps them remember more clearly. They remember the music and often they can remember other episodes, other people and even sometimes, who they themselves are. Think about autonoesis here. The remembered music is a kind of abstracted episode or retained through an important emotional connection; they may not remember who they are but they remember the tune, often tinged with personal experience. They remember other stories and people, e.g., even their children sometimes, as a direct function of autonoesis. And they may remember their own identity, the “I” in autonoesis. If unfamiliar, check out an incredible documentary about Glen Campbell who suffered from severe dementia in his last years but continued to perform even though he could remember little of his life, had difficulty remembering his children, hardly knew his own name, but he could still play the guitar (procedural memory) and sing the songs (semantic memory, I guess) with emotion.
Consider as well how novelists seem to be able to use autonoesis to create characters. Good writers say that characters, once formed, can take on a life of their own and even contribute to the creation of the story. This is maybe not autonoesis involving episodic autobiographical memory but rather is drawing upon semantic memory and imaginative construction in an autonoetic manner. Still, reading Catcher in the Ryeor David Copperfieldor Notes from the Underground, which all start with first person narratives, you know that one large part of the novelist’s skill is using autonoesis to create character and story.
Regular readers here know that Susanne Langer posited that art, i.e., presentational symbols, is created from the artist’s experience. The art symbol conveys import abstracted from the person’s life that is too complex to be rendered in the linear discursive symbolic expression of language. Art, even novels that use words, conveys this import through some complex, abstracted form of myriad elements, whether these are visual, auditory, movement, verbal, constructive, etc. Given that, I think any artist must use their autonoetic sense to wander the landscape of their life and map out that essential terrain that will represent the inspired apprehension of some features of vital experience. The artist’s self would seem, then, an essential tool of their craft.
Maybe, as Varela, Thompson and Rosch assert along with David Hume and deep Buddhist traditions, the self is an illusion. I am sure that at one level the self is a construct that facilitates awareness and analysis of one’s being in context. I am curious, though, about a mystic sense wherein we find the discrimination between subjective and objective lacking, e.g., we are one with the world, and find that the self is an illusion of our engagement in samsara. After reading The Embodied MindI have delved into some Eastern texts, e.g., The Yoga Sutra among others, and begun listening to a Great Courses lecture series by Dr. Grant Hardy, “The Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition”. (A great series, by the bye—his knowledge and enthusiasm are delightful). Our Western intellectual tradition is a good one. One of humanity’s virtues is that we have more than one good intellectual tradition and I am finding, like many other Westerners before me, that the Eastern tradition is both very different and very valuable in what it offers both in knowledge and wisdom. So, let us travel on to new roads and learn more about our humanity.