Parsing personality

Still reading Davis and Panksepp’s The Emotional Foundations of Personality.  One of their basic premises is that psychologists over the past many years have based their  conceptualizations on questionnaires using a great variety of words denoting divers aspects of personality and analyzing the responses through a statistical technique known as factor analysis, e.g., detecting patterns of responses that group together in different factors or dimensions marking personality differences.  The main model here they refer to as the Big 5, oft replicated and oft modified:  extraversion, agreeableness, dependability, emotionality, & refinement.  Davis and Panksepp, understanding that any durable conception of personality must have some basis in the brain, point out that this traditional method is a top-down approach, i.e., the words represent cultural verbal features that are presumably cortically based, and that such an approach neglects the emotional roots and biases that compose a personality when examined from a fuller, wider perspective.  Thus, their book looks at a bottom-up approach based upon Panksepp’s affective neuroscience and so begins with how our emotional systems contribute to personality formation and differences.  This makes much good sense to me.

Two interesting ideas have come up that bear a little discussion.  One is their assertion that neuroscientific research shows that subcortical structures and functions, while displaying individual differences, are relatively invariant across our species, indeed, across most of the neo-mammalian world, which implies a strong genetic basis for their development.  Cortical structures are also generally invariant in their embryological development but cortical functions appear to be shaped almost entirely by experience. In other words, we are born with our subcortical functions already defined in nascent perceptual, motoric, and emotional modules but with our cortical functions pretty free-form.

Now this astounds me.  They are saying that the cortex is virtually module free so that functionality arises through experiential engagement with the world.  Okay, I say, but what about language?  What about Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas that are critically involved in language processing?  They imply that a human child born to non-language using parents would not have the usual Wernicke and Broca areas.  Of course, human children are born into a world of language so that shapes their cortical functions as a matter of course.  (If you have read Susan Oyama’s book, The Ontogeny of Informationor read my blog on 2/22/19 on the matter, you will see that such a conception is consistent with her ideas there, i.e., ontogeny = genetic expression + developmental circumstances.  Hey now!) Davis and Panksepp pose the powerful example of vision, which is quite dependent upon cortical analysis and synthesis for object recognition, etc.  Animals deprived of visual experience early on in their development do not learn to see, i.e., their visual cortex, whatever functions it performs, does not carry out the perceptual processes needed to see.

After thinking about this for a while I came up with the question, “What about mirroring?”  Perhaps our cortex does have a mirroring module, so that our social emotions and engagement emerging from our subcortical structures are substantiated and amplified through a module whereby we mirror each other.  So far Davis and Panksepp have not touched upon this but I will keep on reading with this question in mind.  I would almost bet that the cortical structures that connect perceptual and motoric areas, e.g., the bilateral longitudinal fasciculi, the arcuate fasciculi (see post 4/24/14), the uncinate fasciculi, and let me not forget the one very important to consciousness, the claustrum (see posts 8/17/14 & 5/30/18), do form a functional module for mirroring.  I don’t know but there would be a couple of good research projects or dissertations involved in answering that question.  Mirroring could be one area where the top-down and bottom-up come together.

The second interesting idea is a bit more philosophical.  Davis and Panksepp refer to the various traits identified through factor analysis as the Big Five but another one keeps cropping up called ‘conscientiousness’.  While they can identify how the Big Five relate to the emotional systems, they see conscientiousness as different.  The others are would seem to be traits simply defined, but conscientiousness is more of a cognitive style; it would seem to operate over and above the rest in a superordinate manner.  People define it in various ways, e.g., as the focused intent to accomplish a goal or as organized to fulfill intent in detailed manner, etc.  Davis and Panksepp use a curious phrase in their discussion: To carve up nature at the joints (of course you understand this better if you have ever butchered meat), meaning to conceptualize the parts, interactions, and energies in a way that comports as best as we can tell with the reality of nature.   Being a linguistics sort of guy I have used the phrase ‘to parse nature’ like we had to do to diagram the parts of a sentence accurately.

The argument behind Davis and Panksepp’s book is that the personality traits as developed through top-down verbal questionnaires may not be the best way to carve up nature and that a better way is to go from bottom-up through the well established emotional systems.  Amen.  While the Big Five comport some with the 3 positive emotional systems, i.e., joy/play, care/nurturance, & seeking, it collapses the 3 negative systems, i.e., rage/anger, fear/anxiety, & panic/sadness into one category.  And conscientiousness as currently formulated does not fit well with any emotion-based parsing.

I can see where conscientiousness could be a dimension of personality; some people are more conscientious than others in how they do things, but I think this varies with activity, i.e., some are careful in their work habits and slobs at home, etc.  As I read their analysis I kept pulling back to gain a wider perspective. Conscientiousness in part involves attention to pattern and detail and that is a trait that Hans Asperger described as going haywire in the syndrome on the autistic spectrum that bears his name, but that he thought was necessary for anyone to achieve in their field be it artistic, scientific or whatnot.  Doing anything well requires some attention to the overall pattern and the details therein.

Pulling back farther, consider Baruch Spinoza’sconatus, an ancient concept that he saw as central to life.  It refers to the inborn momentum of life to carry on and succeed in its endeavors.  This would include the basic processes by which life sustains its negentropic balance (until it doesn’t and dies) and behaviors, I think, by which it exploits chance opportunities and ameliorates negative exigencies.  Could conscientiousness be a further development of the conatusinherent in us? Similarly, I have discussed before the two main features of an individual’s sense of self, one is the autonoetic autobiographical memory (post 8/22/18) of lived experience and the other is the sense of agency.  While personalities may vary in the dimension of conscientiousness, all of us must carry such a trait if we are to be agents of our lives.

So parsing and butchering reality, I will travel on from here.



I watched the Congressional hearings yesterday with Robert Mueller III and saw an old soldier summon and marshal barely enough energy to complete his last mission.  I listened to the news coverage and heard so many opinions lighting up the airwaves, like the flashes of fireflies in May five years ago that provided brief glows back then but no lasting illumination.  I looked at the sunset out my kitchen window and wondered if my country will survive this period where truth and honor are apportioned according to tribal allegiances and media ratings.  After dark I stood on my deck taking in the starlight arriving from long ago and hoped it was not too late.


Psychologists’ ethics (or lack thereof)

Remember Ted Kaczynski?  I am reading The Emotional Foundations of Personality:  A Neurobiological and Evolutionary Approachco-authored by Kenneth L. Davis and the great Jaak Panksepp, who did not live to see its completion but whose work and ideas inspired the effort.  So far it is interesting, a bit wordy and redundant as it argues for a different way of conceptualizing personality based upon the roots of our emotionality in subcortical structures.  The interesting part is when they depart from promoting their approach to actually detailing it in contrast with some previous approaches that struggle to be relevant biologically.

Being a retired clinical psychologist, I used to pay attention to personality theory. Actually, long years ago as an undergraduate English major, I read a book by Theophrastus on Characters, an early effort at understanding personality types.  Anyway, I used several instruments to assay the personalities of some patients, like the MMPI, a long, very long set of yes-no questions which has been used for decades.  The patterns of answers fit into certain personality profiles that were identified through statistical means (factor-analysis) and standardized through several iterations of the test.

Another instrument was the TAT, the Thematic Apperception Test, wherein I would show a patient a series of pictures and ask them to tell me a story about them, the assumption being that their interpretations were projections of their personality, e.g., of how they viewed their world, others in it and themselves. It was helpful.

Now I read in Emotional Foundations of Personality(written in 2018) that the TAT was created by Christiana Morgan and Henry Murray in the 1930s, and reading a note accompanying the text on my Kindle, that Murray ran a psychology study at Harvard for several years (1969-1972) that Ted Kaczynski (remember the Unabomber finally caught living the primitive life in Montana) participated in. Further, Murray’s study is now understood to have been quite unethical (and no surprise, had some funding links with the CIA).  Jumping Jehosaphat, as my hero Gabby Hayes used to exclaim, I needed to know more. Wikipedia was there for me.

From 1959 to 1962 Murray ran a study that looked at how to break down a person’s mind and control them.  Under the guise of a different experiment (thus the ethical violation of enlisting subjects without informed consent) the researchers would ask the subject about themselves, their lives, values, etc., ostensibly for a neutral purpose, but then use that information to subject them to insults, demeaning their persons, behaviors and values, to understand the effects of such psychologically sadistic behaviors (oh, another unethical behavior).

Ted Kocynski enlisted as a young 18 or 19 year old Harvard student and was subjected to over 200 hours of this ‘protocol’.  It would be enlightening to know how many subjects dropped out early in their participation.  He had been admitted to Harvard as a particularly gifted student in mathematics, described as mostly socially withdrawn, not unfriendly but not socially skilled or outgoing either.  Upon graduation he began to teach college mathematics but quit after 6 or 7 years and disappeared into the wilds of Montana, where he became increasingly alienated, critical and perhaps paranoid of modern society and government, eventually terrorizing the nation with letter bombs.  One of his biographers, drawing from family and friends’ interviews and Kaczynksi’s writings, believes his experience in Murray’s experiment had a profound impact on his mind, attitudes (his personality?) and mental stability.

I have found that psychologists have a mixed reputation amongst the population. When my wife recently told a new acquaintance that I was a retired clinical psychologist, she exclaimed that she would be afraid to talk with me.  Ah, yes, now that I focus on reading her mind, I can see why.  And of course we are not referred to as shrinks for nothing, or actually it is for nothing because ‘shrinks’ really refers to psychiatrists, but that is neither here nor there.

Consider also that two psychologists cooperated with the CIA, not having learned anything from the Henry Murray incident (maybe not knowing about it or seeing that he was not censored, went ahead anyway), to help design the CIA torture mistakenly called ‘enhanced interrogation’.  The American Psychological Association evidently also cooperated with this effort. Oh well, the two psychologists and their company were paid $81 million dollars for this work.  The rest of us received the assurance that the torture was, what?  Psychologically valid?  We know it was not reliable nor ethical nor humane.  Just ask the victims of torture and those victimized by Ted Kaczynski.

I gotta get out of this place, so I will quickly travel on.

irrepressible & resilient

I live on a farm in a high mountain valley in southwest Virginia.  Part of our land is in meadow and has been in meadow since before Europeans arrived when Native Americans managed the area as an inter-tribal hunting ground.  Part of the land is in old climax forest where the trees have not been harvested for more than a century and the underbrush cleared out in the 1930s by a WPA crew. It is a delight to walk in.  A smaller third part is rugged and rocky hillside pasture used for livestock.  We took part of the meadow for our gardens when we retired here 10-11 years ago. While our gardens have been productive, we constantly work at weed control because the meadow grasses and other plants, having established themselves here for more than 3 centuries, are irrepressible.


Do what we may, they find a way to resurge and grow again.

Up in our forest comprising many hardwood species we find wildflowers according to their season and mosses.  Beautiful mosses of many sorts, lovely and seemingly fragile, but appearances are deceiving because it turns out that they, too, are irrepressible.


Scientists paying attention to the recession of glaciers as they melt from global warming have found some remarkable mosses.  These were buried under many feet of ice 1600 years ago, but with a little TLC they came back to life.  Now that is irrepressible.  In addition, scientists have found nematodes  (small worms) that were frozen 41,000 years ago and still live. Who knows what other resilient life is hidden on Gaia and on other planets? Here’s a link to that report:

Re-reading Ramachandran

I have been pondering how to go further towards a neural model of art-making, so I re-read the two chapters on art in V. S. Ramachandran’s book, The Telltale Brain.  As I reviewed in my post on 3/20/18, this is a very interesting book; Ramachandran is a scientist-practitioner of the highest order.  While I had some quibbles about the book in general, I gave him credit for having two chapters on art, which is two more than most books on neuroscience have, and they are interesting chapters, so I re-read them.

I will focus today on two quibbles, one minor and one major, and then applaud and expand one theme he carries forward in these chapters.  The minor quibble is easy and common.  When he talks about art, he is only discussing paintings with a heavy emphasis on the audience’s engagement at that.  Many books that touch on this topic show the same constraints. In part this is due to the extensive research into the visual system, so that we are able to transfer that knowledge to ideas on art appreciation.  It is also due to the difficulty in exploring the compositional process painters go through as they paint.  More distressing, though, is the assumption that art=painting, thereby ignoring music, literature, sculpture, architecture, etc.  The remedy to this quibble is increased awareness of aesthetic theory, e.g., everyone should read Langer’s Philosophy in a New Keyand Feeling and Formand increased knowledge in the efforts to understand other art forms, e.g., much is done on music.

My major quibble is a more of a problem.  When I re-read these chapters I found a passage where Ramachandran states that art is not important in our evolution:  “the production of art itself does not have survival value” and “its role is pure enjoyment.”  What? Even if true, enjoyment has survival value, else how do you explain a neural system uncovered by Jaak Panksepp that supports play and feelings of joy?  Also, humans (and our cousins) have been making art for maybe 100,000+ years, every society and culture has established artistic traditions, and as Ellen Dissayanake showed in her book Homo Aestheticus, art is ubiquitous in human affairs.  Limiting the consideration of art to the fine art of painting, as Ramachandran does, prevents adequate intellectual consideration of the phenomena.  So our artistic capability has certainly resulted from evolutionary changes.

This can be complicated.  What do we call an evolutionary product that does not contribute to adaptive success? Pinker and Bloom give an example of blood’s redness—the color is only a result of hemoglobin being iron-based; if we were lobsters with copper-based hemoglobin, our blood would be green.  So our blood’s redness is called an evolutionary spandrel after architectural spandrels that result from arching pillars joining the roof and creating a triangular space that does not contribute to the supporting structure even if it does yield a decorative space:


Elsewhere Ramachandran states that art-making is done by “deliberate hyperbole and distortion of reality”.  Well, that does make art seem incidental.  As you may guess, I think it is counter to reality. Art is, I believe as Langer conceptualized, a high level intellectual activity, the abstraction of the idea of emotion, and a complex sharing of deeply felt vital experience.  Consider this:  we grow pumpkins.  One or two flowers on a vine develop into a fruit, while the other blossoms contribute pollen and draw pollinators to the plant.  Are those non-fruiting blossoms useless?  Do they not support the production of the fruit needed to carry on the genetic strain?  Are they just redundant and back-up in case other blossoms fail?  What determines that?  I think even calling art a spandrel is not apt, and Ramachandran belittles art beyond that.

However, in this interesting book, he does give us some pearls.  Ramachandran states that our neuroscience has advanced to the stage wherein we can speculate about how our brains do art, and not many say that so clearly.  He provides a couple of goals for our quest.  One is that we should know how to distinguish between real art and kitsch, but I am not sure that is a worthy one.  I like a second one better.  He draws from his heritage to discuss a word/concept from Sanskrit, “rasa” that means to capture the essence or spirit of a thing.  To understand art, Ramachandran says in contradiction to his belittling elsewhere, we need to understand its ‘rasa’.  Okay then.

He talks about ‘Aha!’ moments when we apprehend the rasa in a work of art and thinks maybe this occurs when cortical processing becomes synchronized and so excites the limbic system to a positive state.  Could be, but this also seems a bit too simple.  Ramachandran discusses 9 laws of aesthetics that he draws from neural functioning.  These are interesting but limited by his debilitated view of art as not intellectual, focus on the visual system and audience experience, and lack of consideration of the artist’s process of production.  Aesthetic joy is a real phenomena, sometimes ‘Aha!’, more often a quiet wave of reflection, and we do need to understand how the artist achieves it, how the audience receives it, and the symbolic forms that convey it.  Ramachandran gives some ideas about the neural structures and functions supporting these, nothing earth-shaking, so maybe I will post more on this after a few more re-reads and further pondering.

Finishing up, Ramachandran gives two examples of art appreciation, or lack thereof. He talks of how a Victorian English art critic disparaged the statue of Nataraja (Shiva as Lord of the Dance—the dance that creates the universe) as savagery, not art.  Ain’t it funny how ignorant imperialists are?  But long ago the locals watched a bearded European stand entranced in front of the statue and then begin to contort his body to mirror the various postures Shiva assumes.  They thought this was a bit crazy until someone realized that the man was August Rodin, and the sculptor was appreciating the artistry involved in that statue.


Shiva as Lord of the Dance

The last example comes from Ramachandran’s discussion of how nervous systems like exaggerated forms, thus explaining the power of caricatures.  He details how Tinbergen, pioneer ethologist, discovered that gull chicks pecked at the red spot on the mother’s bill to get her to feed them, and that they would peck at almost anything with a red spot, but they would peck the most at a stick with 3 red stripes painted on it. Again, this illustrates how our brains process stimuli, even objects that are distorted far from reality can provoke the strongest response.  Ramachandran compares these gull chicks to art connoisseurs who chase the newest fad. Now I have to like that.

Well, time to travel on to the next view of our biological roots.

Are socialization and acculturation the true names? If so, of what?

Several ancient traditions held that using the right word or phrase was important in rendering the truth of the matter. Writers such as Ursula K. Leguin adopted this tradition in some of her fiction—the power of naming, of saying the true name, was magical in EarthSea.  I recently read another Chinese writer, Lu Chi, who espoused a similar idea back around 300 CE. A modern example might be Murray Gell-Mann’s use of the word “quarks” for the particles, whether theoretically real or mathematically imaginary, which make up the atomic and sub-atomic particle zoo.  I just finished his biography; what an amazing creature he was (having just passed away on 5/24/2019).  He had a hand or finger in almost every advance in developing the what physicists now refer to as the Standard Theory, as good an approximation in our understanding of physical reality as we have managed, not the ultimate one, they say, but one that manages to be the most accurate in accounting for past experimental results and predicting future ones.  New ways of explaining previously unknown particles and fields were needed.  Gell-Mann was known for coining terms to label some of these newly found phenomena, his lifting of the word “quark” from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake being the most famous.

I have also finished The Social Construction of Reality by Berger and Luckmann, a very intense, insightful book examining the sociology of knowledge that I discussed a couple of posts ago (6/22/19), and their use of labels is what really concerns me today.  After discussing the objective basis of our social construction they move on to the subjective basis.  That, of course, necessitates they venture from a sociological domain into one more psychological.  If they wrote their book today, rather than in 1966, I think they would be able to find better words (maybe the right or ‘true names’) to capture some important phenomena.

They refer to the process of a human child acquiring the basis and basics of its society’s construction of reality, which includes the establishment of identity, as socialization.  While they are focused on the sociological structures of knowledge, they acknowledge a necessary component of emotional identification.  Gosh and golly, for those of us who began studying in the late 60s, this necessary component morphed into the very important phenomena of attachment and identification, including the basic capability of emotional regulation going up and down, including now some of the neural structures that serve this development of a functional personality (see Allan Schore’s books and my post on 7/31/18).

Many do still refer to this phase of development as ‘socialization’ so that word is still serviceable.  After this initial phase, a second phase begins during which language helps children to acquire the social accoutrements of their culture.  Berger and Luckmann call this phase ‘socialization 2’. Not bad for a first approximation, but it lacks the cachet of the later term ‘acculturation’.  I really like these two terms when placed in relation to one another:  socialization refers to the ontogeny of an individual mind, personality and early social identity and acculturation refers to that individual’s acquiring the habitus and orthodoxy of their culture, including their social roles outside of familial relations.  If, as an adult, you move to a different land, you will be acculturated anew, maybe not to the same unconscious or deep level of implicit or procedural memories as a naïve youngster once was but still learning some new ways.

A couple of favorite examples of this latter process comes from movies and TV. One of our favorite shows on PBS is Cycling Around Japan in which a westerner who has lived in Japan for some years and is an avid bicyclist travels through an area meeting interesting people, e.g., farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen, or better, craftspeople & fisherpeople.  I find the care with which the westerners approach each Japanese person delightful. They always greet the person at the outset, “Konichiwa” and ask permission to talk and view their work as they exchange bows.  Contrast this culture where each person is careful not to be intrusive, where calm and distant politeness in basic exchanges is quietly assumed, with the attitude currently in the news about the New York way of blustery engagement.  I prefer the Japanese culture in this, but then I went to high school in Japan and hold those memories dear.

The second example of a different acculturation is from the movie, Wadjda, discussed here in a post on 12/11/14 about a young Arab girl who wants to ride a bicycle, a completely unorthodox and mostly unacceptable wish on her part.  A westerner would have to adapt very quickly, i.e., become acculturated, to function in this culture, especially a female. Women who even visit briefly must dress accordingly, e.g., no shorts or even short dresses and wear a head covering. That is an obvious and surface marker of cultural differences, but one scene in the movie stands out to me.  The girls at lunchtime are allowed to play outside for a while.  Some workmen on the roof of a building some distance away settle down for their lunch with a view of the schoolyard.  Immediately most of the girls run inside because, after all, these are men not of their family and so cannot look at them.  Our heroine Wadjda retreats more slowly, (oh, she is a spunky lass) because why should the girls have to lose their recess due to men who are far away, and is promptly reprimanded by the schoolmarm for doing so.

Berger and Luckmann’s term ‘socialization 2’ does not really capture this phenomena in an illuminating way—‘acculturation’ is the way to go, assuming you are being neutral and not judging the Arab society mores discriminating against females (and then other terms would apply, eh? Let’s settle on ‘unjust’ for now).  As always I wish to understand how these two terms, socialization and acculturation, if they do indeed parse out the true or right distinctions in our development, operate in neural terms.  As I mentioned, Allan Schore has given us a good start on the socialization front in his excellent summary of research into the neural systems supporting attachment and emotional regulation, but what are the neural systems supporting acculturation? I presume acculturation is quite complex and not at all unified into a single system.  Consider some of the various facets: kinesics, e.g., body language, social mores of politeness, social constraints on topics for conversation, divisions between groups, child-rearing and elder support practices, along with the traditional anthropological subjects of property inheritance, matri- and patri-lineal succession, ways of forming alliances, e.g., marriages, and rituals marking birth, death, and the passages falling in-between.

Thinking about the conventional understanding of our current paradigms, some of these facets would be inherent in procedural and semantic memories, while some would seem to operate through episodic or autonoetic memories.  Many would seem to operate as constraints as to what could be understood, remembered and practiced as orthodox and acceptable, i.e., the less conscious standards by which we judge the others.  Ah, so much more to understand as we progress in our thinking when we are more capable.

I leave you with a passage from the Art of Writing, written by Lu Chi (more on him later) around 300 CE and translated by Sam Hamill:

Ordering thoughts and ideas we begin to choose our words.

Each choice is made with care, fit with a sense of proportion.

Shadowy thoughts are brought into the light of reason; echoes are traced to their sources.

It is like following the branch to find the trembling leaf, like following the stream to find the spring.

*  *  *  *  *

Calm the heart’s dark waters; Collect from deep thoughts the proper names for things.


Lu Chi’s lessons apply, I believe, to most intellectual endeavors.  As always, looking for the proper name of things, I travel on.