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.