Reflection 72: Introspection

March 4, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)


In this post, my topic is introspection, which raises eyebrows in some circles To start with, I offer these caveats from Joseph LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self:


1. We have to be very careful when we use verbal reports based on introspective analyses of one’s own mind as scientific data (Emotional Brain, 32).


2. Introspection is not going to be very useful as a window into the workings of the vast unconscious facets of the mind (Same, 33).


3. Introspections are often going to be a poor window into how processing that gives rise to conscious content works and are no window at all into processing that does not give rise to immediate conscious content (Same, 66f.).


It is a good idea to post such no trespassing signs at the entrance to your territory. I read them as cautionary, not prohibitive. To go point by point:


1. Yes, it is always wise to be very careful, no matter what methods we use in our investigations.


2. Yes, again, introspection is not going to shed much light on the workings of the unconscious mind, but it can prove an aid in suggesting some of the features to be accounted for by other means of research.


3. True, introspection, as an emergent property of neurological processes, won’t have much to say about the biological and chemical process making them possible, any more than words in everyday language can adequately describe or explain how they occur to the mind in the first place.


But these warnings do not mean that introspection is worthless or should be avoided. This blog, is based on introspection, supplemented by readings in the literature of neuroscience. My method of investigation is wrong for Joseph LeDoux, as his is wrong for me. We have no choice but to be who we are and act accordingly. I opt for introspection. Which I claim is ethical because it does not impose my will or beliefs on anyone but myself. I don’t experiment on animals, I don’t manipulate people. What I do, I do unto myself and bear the consequences.


And by the way, even LeDoux relies on introspective methods when it suits him. He quotes Charles Darwin:


I put my face close to the thick glass-plate in front of a puff-ader in the Zoological Gardens, with the firm determination of not starting back if the snake struck at me; but, as soon as the blow was struck, my resolution went for nothing, and I jumped a yard or two backwards with astonishing rapidity. My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced (Emotional Brain, 112).


There in that account is introspection concerning personal will and reason. When it comes to personal consciousness, every person bears the authority of Charles Darwin in her own instance. Being both subject and object of study in one person has tremendous advantages. Your research never ends or runs out of material. You are always in the lab when something significant happens. You occupy a seat of tremendous privilege in actually being in someone’s mind all the time. Your findings will be as valid as the fineness of your observational skills, the questions you ask, and the time you put in.


Phenomenology is the basic discipline of introspection. Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty have developed techniques for productive self-observation. One of the most useful is bracketing a sensory phenomenon in awareness, which requires holding it suspended in your mind before rushing to impress rational or emotional meaning upon it. This lets the observer feel the tensions toward meaning within him or her self, leading to exploration of the qualities of meaning elicited in such a situation.


In various posts, I have given a first-person report of a mental occurrence, using bracketing to focus my attention on what has transpired. I do not necessarily see things as they are, and I often miss things that should be clearly evident. Too, I sometimes experience things that aren’t there at all.


The most glaring way I fool myself is in believing that consciousness depicts events in the real world. As if my entire mental apparatus did not come between me and that world, skewing it, distorting it, shaping it to fit my personal fears and desires. Which (as I wrote in Reflection 32: Slap My Face) is why I blog—to keep myself awake, like slapping my face when I’m driving while tired. And to remind you to slap your face. To ask questions. To both wonder and ponder. That’s the only way I know to get better at this consciousness game, by not taking it for granted. I am out to improve the practice of consciousness, not to document it as a given. The world situation is a catalogue of what happens when consciousness fails us. If we are to do better, we need to learn to govern our conscious actions more effectively.


Blogging has given me a motive to do this research, and a platform for presenting it to the world. My primary learning is that consciousness supports whatever endeavor I engage in—as long as I do my part by putting my heart into it first and doing my homework. Insight is more likely to come to those who prepare the ground. I have woken up many times at three in the morning with the answer to a question I posed upon going to bed. My job is to goad consciousness into doing its thing by presenting it with a worthy challenge. Consciousness, I have found, always rises to the task. I don’t know why or how it does that, which is the sort of question Joseph LeDoux likes to take on regarding the workings of the emotional brain.


As for that, LeDoux himself acknowledges that introspection might have some heuristic value at least in shedding light on the mind and its brain:


While personal experience is not a good way to prove anything (we’ve seen the perils of introspection as scientific data), there’s nothing wrong with using it as a takeoff point for a more penetrating analysis (Emotional Brain, 295).


I am convinced consciousness is sufficiently complex to warrant attention from investigators of all sorts using a variety of methods. I am pleased to share these findings with others who wonder about the workings of the mind. I offer them as examples of what can be accomplished largely through curiosity, openness, and determination as posted to the global forum of the World Wide Web for public consideration.





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