Thursday, May 28, 2009

Who the Hell Are We and What Does That Have To Do With Our Recovery?

Picking up from where we left off:

It turns out the most consistent way of recognizing that someone is in a state of well-being is how well they've been able to express self-directedness, cooperation, and self-transcendence in their lives.

This translates into meaningful work, mutually caring relationships, and a sense of what's really important beyond out individual needs.

So says personality and well-being expert Robert Cloninger MD of Washington University (St Louis). Dr Cloninger was addressing a packed house at the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting last week in San Francisco. I was in the audience as a journalist.

Medications are useful in getting us to stable, Dr Cloninger advised, and in putting us in a position to get started. Then the real journey begins. It all starts with knowing ourselves, having a sense of growth and self-awareness.

So who the hell are we?

Well, before we answer that question, we might first ask ourselves to define personality. Dr Cloninger's simple explanation: "It's the way we learn and adapt." Let's amplify that: "It's the self plus the internal and external forces that pull on the self."

Key features of personality, Dr Cloninger said, include:

  • It's dynamic, and non-linear. "Get over the idea that it's fixed and written in stone."
  • It is psychobiological, which includes the body, the analytical mind, and the intuitive and creative mind.
  • It is organized. There is a basic design in all human beings that allow us understand and to communicate with each other.
  • It is personal. Adaptive processes occur within the individual. We tend to get sidetracked comparing the differences between people, which is wrong. If we want to motivate someone, we need to figure out what is going on within them, what counts to them.
  • It is idiographic. We are each unique.

Here's a key fact we tend to overlook: We have evolved over millions of years, and with it three major systems of learning and memory.

  1. Habits and skills learning: Reptiles have this nailed. This is based on the quantitative strength of our synaptic connections. It is prelogical, not rational, and subjectively linked to basic emotions such as fear and anger and ambition. These habit systems demand instant gratification and tend to get in conflict with each other.
  2. Semantic learning of facts and propositions: Mammals rule in this department. It is contingently logical and rational in a hierarchical sense, and is associated with secondary emotions such as empathy. Propositions bring order to the chaos of the demands of our basic emotions, but is not self-aware.
  3. Intuitions and narratives: A uniquely human trait, the recognition that we are writing our own story. At once, we talking about pre-verbal and intuitive, rational and self-aware, modular rather than hierarchical. Here's the pay-off: "It gives us flexibility about the future. We can change. We can have hope. We can be creative and do things we've never done in the past and surprise everybody."

Ah, now we're getting somewhere. We've just gotten past the Table of Contents. Now we can begin to check out our Owner's Manual in earnest. Think of the slide below as a sneak preview.

Trust me, "Know Thyself" is where recovery starts, and Dr Cloninger is the leading authority. Much more to come ...

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