Thursday, 2 October 2008

The Empty Man

Think of yourself as a suit of armour. No I don’t mean your body, I mean your “Self”, you know, the person in your mind who looks out of your eyes. The person you think is You. No I’m not using this suit of armour analogy for the usual reasons. Yes, armour can mean protection, something to hide behind. But in this case there is another aspect of armour that makes it particularly apposite. Armour is made up of lots of different bits and pieces, all bolted together. And what do they make? What does a suit of armour look like?

It looks like a person. And that’s how You are constructed. Out of bits and pieces of bolt-on personality. Everything that makes a human a person has been carefully fitted, screwed on, slotted in, until the end result appears to be a normal person.

This is the Empty Man.

But hey, what exactly is this sham suit of armour actually mimicking? Why, all the other people around you of course. It’s built and constructed to fit in with the current social structure that its wearer wishes to live in. So you build it out of the same materials, using the same social bolt-ons that everyone else uses. So you fit in.

So in a sense the Empty Man is a necessary part of our whole social interaction with our species, and probably evolved in tandem with our species’ own social evolution. But is the Empty Man simply a mirroring, a copy of our own inner personality, the essential Self-Awareness of every person, the “I”? Surely if our Mind already contains an “I”, why would we then see the need to model one? Why couldn’t we use the one that we already have?

Well…perhaps we don’t already have one. Let’s look at what our “Self” actually is. OK, it’s what makes You…You. It’s the person inside your head who does the thinking, who makes the decision, who talks to people, who actually sits there looking out of your eyes. But what do we actually need a “Self” for? We need to know when we’re happy, when we’re sad, when we’re angry, when we’re hungry, when we’re tired. Hang on though. When we’re hungry we eat. When we’re tired we sleep. We don’t need a concept of Self for that. A Flatworm can do all these things, and it doesn’t have a Self. Right, but what about being happy or sad, or angry? Well these are emotions, and as such are social aspects of your personality. There’s not much point in being happy or sad or angry, if there’s no-one around for you to share these emotions with.

Let’s face it, we only need a concept of Self in order to interact with other members of our species. That’s the point of the Suit of Armour that is the essence of the Empty Man. It’s a construct to enable us to live in the Human World.

So if we already have a constructed personality, in the Empty Man, and we only really need a Self in order to interact with other people, is it reasonable to assume that the Empty Man actually is the Self?

Yup, that’s probably it. The reality behind our Self-Awareness is this: Our model of the Human World around us contains a detailed construct of Ourselves, a model so detailed that it thinks it is alive. However, it isn’t a model of anything that exists. It isn’t a copy of our is our Self.

And that’s the secret of the Empty Man. Like a suit of armour, he is truly empty. He walks around the stage of life, strutting his stuff, forever refining his image by adding new personality traits here and removing obsolete attitudes there. A false smile for this occasion, some sincere honesty for that, and a squirming bag of unhealthy desire to flavour the mix. Far from creating a model that we can drive around inside our heads, we have created a personality that extends into the Human World and drives around inside us.

Not only that , but in order for us to function correctly, we have to integrate hidden, sometimes unsightly, parts of our personality into the Empty Man as well. We all have parts of our persona that no-one knows about. Guilty shameful secrets that only we are aware of. Naughty things that range from a hopeless infatuation for someone we can never have, right down to an unhealthy obsession with someone we should never go near. Without these hidden desires, the Empty Man wouldn’t be a true representative of all that we are, and all that we want to be. Of course these hidden aspects are just that…hidden. So why incorporate them at all? Well, because they are all parts of your human personality, and as such they all need a voice. These secretive parts of our nature may not be part of our visible armour, but they still colour our interactions with other people, the way we might talk to someone we secretly find attractive, for example. Although we might never allow that person to know our true feelings, those feelings still have a strong influence on how we interact with them.

If you doubt this premise, there is plenty of evidence to back it up. Look at the development of a child. At birth a child is armourless, but almost within weeks that begins to change as the child looks to the adults around it (and it's parents in particular) for behavioural clues to mimic and incorporate into it's own social makeup. You can almost see their personalities forming in front of your eyes. Somewhere between the ages of 3 and 4 a child learns to lie. This coincides with their sudden ability to generalise about the world around them, and for the first time to put themselves into “another person’s shoes”. This is the first beginnings of the Empty Man, and if this is true, then we are all Empty.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Thoughts from the Anarchy of my Mind

Why can’t I stop smoking? There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think maybe I’ll quit this evening, scrunch the packet and throw it away. But I never do, and yesterday I really looked into my reasons for this.

OK so it’s the addiction that prevents me from stopping, but how exactly does that work? Well it changes my thought processes, making the decision to keep on smoking more attractive than the decision to quit. So far so good.

But what is actually happening in my brain? Examining my feelings, I find that I’m actually not looking forward to my own reactions afterwards. I know from experience that the next few days will find me annoyed and stressed, angry at my own decision to quit. I am fully aware that my mind is a fragmented affair, consisting of several separate units of emotion and thought, so I have put this down to me not wanting to experience the angriness and frustration of the part of my personality that is actually addicted.

I’m scared of discomfort.

Now any normal human being is scared of discomfort and pain, and I suspect this is controlled by an inate "self-preservation module”. Mind would appear to be very highly developed. Certainly there is evidence for this in my past behaviour. I dislike and avoid confrontation with other people. I don’t like trying something new, especially if there is a real risk it will hurt me, or I won’t like it. I have to really force myself to undertake tasks where the outcome is uncertain. I don’t like to stray outside my comfort zone, I don’t like to take risks, and I’ve seen this behaviour in my (currently 10 year old) son. The only times I can seem to override these feelings are with respect to other people whom I have a vested emotional interest in (e.g. members of my family), or in situations where the "self-preservation module" weighs up the pros and cons and realises that taking the risk may result in a Big Reward…or not taking the risk may result in more discomfort than the risk itself.

For example:

Taking nasty-tasting medicine to get better.
Running for a bus.
Suppressing my natural dislike of fairground rides for the sake of my kids.

In all these cases the outcome is clear and substantial – you get better (and hence feel better), you avoid the grief of being late for the bus (even though physical exertion makes you uncomfortable), and you avoid the profound parental disappointment when your kids can’t go on a ride because you don’t want to.

Unfortunately packing in smoking doesn’t give you such an immediately identifiable win. In order to persuade your mind to allow you to quit, you’ve got to give it an incentive. It's got to be something good to offset the very obvious bad (craving, irritation, nerves), and it’s got to be something simple and obvious that the relatively simple components of your mind can understand. Nothing esoteric and intellectual.

Unfortunately it's very difficult to find one. You’re not going to feel better immediately afterwards. You won’t look more attractive to the opposite sex, instantly lose weight (in most cases the opposite), or generally feel much happier and healthier. Although some of these things actually will happen eventually, in the short term, you will feel worse.

Faced with such odds, it’s no wonder your self-preservation instincts almost always persuade you that packing in smoking is a bad idea.

Now about personal confrontation...