Observing Ego

There is a rather delightful aphorism from the yogic traditions, which will paraphrase, and perhaps mangle a bit:

I have feelings, but I am not my feelings.  I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts.

This pearl of exceptional wisdom should probably be on a plaque on the wall of every therapist and psychiatrist in the world.  For this is, in essence, the purpose of many forms of psychotherapy.  In cognitive models one learns to identify negative thoughts as not intrinsic to the person.  In psychodynamic models, one learns that we are distinct from the patterns we unconsciously repeat in life.  In family therapy on learns that one is affected by and affects the family system but is not identical to it.  This is the essence of developing an observing ego.

Neuroplasticity

Although epiphenomenalism may be assumed true by both doctors and patients alike, since it seems to match data related to impaired neurological function, some of the research in neuroplasticity refutes the entire concept of epiphenomenalism. Early research demonstrated that when people learn new skills, such as typing or piano, that areas of the motor cortex of the brain actually increase in size to match. Later research demonstrated new brain connections, after some forms of brain injury, sometimes form to areas of the brain which would otherwise have processed information from different areas of function. This process actually restores the lost functioning, even with different areas of the brain processing the information.

Although these studies were fascinating as they showed the neuronal connections and biological functioning of the brain changed as a result of essentially newly learned tasks, some researchers minimized the results with arguments that this was largely a unique ability for repair following injury. One of the more recent studies was a true paradigm changer. In this research, Tibetan Buddhist monks participated in functional brain imaging studies while practicing a compassion based meditation technique. The finding was astounding: monks showed a novel Gamma brainwave pattern in the frontal lobe, which correlated with the subjective sense of blissfulness. This brainwave pattern had never been seen in any non-pathological state before, and its presence and strength was only related to the number of hours of meditative practice. No other demographic factors correlated with the finding, which suggested a clear circumstance in which willed meditative practice altered brain function over extended practice.

Since epiphenomenalism requires that mental process is only an accidental byproduct of neuronal firing, there is no conceivable way that mental process could actually effect the biological structure. This latest research proves just the opposite: that mental process changes the biology of the brain. Clearly then, any form of biological monism cannot account for this research finding. A different model is needed which accounts for the research data.

Transformation

One of the newest fads in the field of psychiatry and neuroscience in general is the notion that addictions to various substances or behaviors are in some manner biologically “caused.” This is usually an argument based upon the connection of activation of the reward circuitry of the brain with the substance or behavior. Aside from the basic logical truth that this confuses a simple correlation with potential cause and effect, it also assumes that individuals with no addictions have minimal activity within the reward circuitry.

I would have to imagine that if I sit down and enjoy a favorite food and truly savor it, that the reward circuitry of my brain in in some manner mediating this experience. However, my enjoyment of the food does not necessarily lead to out of control eating or addiction.

The errors of the deeply biological explanation ignore the basic realities of experience that patients and friends clearly describe when they change their behavior in pretty profound ways. As an example, a patient I evaluated described ceasing the use of tobacco, one of the more biologically addictive substances on the planet. She said that at the moment her grandchild was born, she had in instant revelation that if she didn’t stop smoking she would never see her grandchild graduate high school. She ceased a several decade history of smoking in an instant. She reported that there had been a few carvings which she ignored and then she knew herself to be a non-smoker.

What changed? How could this addiction disappear in a moment?

The biological answer can only be that a rapid change occurred in her association cortex, which altered the meaning and neural networks related to the behavior of smoking. Even if the desire for the substance is mediated by the reward system, it seems that the connection with the reward system can be instantly disconnected by a transformation of the meaning of the behavior.

Brings to mind the people, places, and things comments of the 12-step groups. All things related to the association network of neurons.

This simple question of how an addiction can be broken really opens a phenomenal series of questions about who we are, how we change, and what layers of the self regulate thoughts and behavior.