Five kinds of self/self-knowledge

Ulric Neisser
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What can one say about an article that explores self in terms of stage theories (5 stages that match my own stage theoretic framework), has references to infantile autism and paranoia , and even references Carol Dweck‘s entity vs incremental intelligence theories and George Lakoff‘s ‘idealized cognitive model‘- all focuses of this blog…Well I just love this article by Ulric Neisser titled ‘Five kinds of self-knowledge’. That artcile gives me an opportunity to integrate and synthesize many of the prominent threads of this blog in a coherent narrative.

Let me start with core thesis of Ulrich that there are at least five different types of selves that we gradually become aware of in developmental time frame. Because Ulrich does such a nice job of presenting his findings , I’ll quote at length from him.

The analysis to be presented here distinguishes among several kinds of self-specifying information, each establishing a different aspect of the self. These aspects are so distinct that they are essentially different selves: they differ in their origins and developmental histories, in what we know about them, in the pathologies to which they are subject, and in the manner in which they contribute to human social experience. Here, in capsule form, is the list:

The ecological self is the self as perceived with respect to the physical environment: I am the person here in this place, engaged in this particular activity.
The interpersonal self, which appears from earliest infancy just as the ecological self does, is specified by species-specific signals of emotional rapport and communication: I am the person who is engaged, here, in this particular human interchange.
The extended self is based primarily on our personal memories and anticipations: I am the person who had certain specific experiences, who regularly engages in certain specific and familiar routines.
The private self appears when children first notice that some of their experiences are not directly shared with other people: I am, in principle, the only person who can feel this unique and particular pain.
The conceptual self or ‘self-concept’ draws its meaning from the network of assumptions and theories in which it is embedded, just as all other concepts do. Some of those theories concern social roles (husband, professor, American), some postulate more or less hypothetical internal entities (the soul, the unconscious mind, mental energy, the brain, the liver), and some establish socially significant dimensions of difference (intelligence, attractiveness, wealth). There is a remarkable variety in what people believe about themselves, and not all of it is true.

Note the five stage model fitting perfectly to the T. The first stage marked by a sensory stage that is more defined in relation to the environment around. The second stage more subjective in nature and based on agentic conceptions of intersubjectivity- related to significant humans around and also valence and affect based. The third stage being ‘experiential ‘ in nature and marked by remembered/internalized activities with family playing a major role in its development. The fourth stage marked by hidden or private stage in which peers or social sphere plays a significant role- also the most traditional defintion and conceptualizations associated with a trait. The fifth, and for now the final, stage associated with abstracting and conceptualization and model-driven depending on culture and subject to cultural variations and also cognition based. Many of the stage features may not be readily apparent and map to the five forms of selves described above, but bear with me- they will become clearer as I elaborate on the selves and quote more from the article.

First let us take the ecological self: Neisser describes them in slightly technical and inaccessible terms of ‘optic flow’ and ‘looming’ -some difficult concepts to grasp but which basically focus on the fact that relative motion between eye(observation point) and the environment (say a wall) lead to this sense of an ecological self that is perceiving the immediate environment and also acting on it. Neisser discusses experiments with children in this context like the child when he closes his eyes claims that you cannot see him. See more below:

One surprising bit of evidence for the importance of optical flow for the ecological self comes from a phenomenon investigated by Flavell, Shipstead & Croft (1980). The phenomenon is amusing in its own right and has often been described: young children cover their eyes with their hands and say “You can’t see me!” Prior to the work of Flavell et al. (1980), this behavior was typically interpreted in Piagetian terms: since the child cannot see anything, s/he assumes that you can’t see anything either. Indeed, when these experimenters asked their eyes-covered subjects “Can I see you?”, most 2- and 3-year-olds answered No. Surprisingly, however, the same subjects answered Yes to many other questions about what the experimenter could see. “Can I see Snoopy (a doll located nearby)?” Yes. “Can I see your leg?” Yes. “Can I see your head?” Yes. These results show that “You can’t see me” does not reflect any egocentric misapprehension about other people’s seeing; rather, it is a clue to the speaker’s own conception of self. The child’s ‘me’—the entity to which the adult’s question “Can I see you?” refers—is evidently somewhere near the eyes. To be sure, that localisation is not precise: Flavell et al. got mixed results when they had their subjects cover only one eye, or stand behind a barrier with a hole in it so that nothing but an eye was visible. Nevertheless the implication seems clear: children locate the self at the point of observation, as specified by the optical flow field.

Important as it is, optical flow is by no means the only determinant of the ecological self. The self is an embodied actor as well as an observer; it initiates movements, perceives their consequences, and takes pleasure in its own effectivity. Infants love to look at their own hands in action, and they can distinguish their own moving legs, seen in real time on a TV screen, from the moving legs of another baby (Bahrick & Watson, 1985). Many theorists have noted the importance of agency in establishing a sense of self. I can cause changes in the immediately perceptible environment, and those objects whose movements and changes I can inevitably and consistently control are parts of me. This kind of self-perception is precisely time dependent and richly intermodal. I can see and feel what I do: the optical and kinesthetically-given structures that specify the consequences of movement are exactly synchronous, and both coincide with the efferent activity by which the action itself is produced. In general, then, the two principal aspects of the ecological self are defined by two distinguishable kinds of information. The existence of a perceiving entity at a particular location in the environment is most clearly specified by the optical flow field (though touch and hearing also contribute); the existence of a bounded, articulated and controllable body is specified not only by what we can see of it but by what we feel and what we can do6.
The ecological self does not always coincide with the biological body. In particular, anything that moves with the body tends to be perceived as part of the self—especially if its movements are self-produced. This principle applies most obviously to the clothes we wear. It is / who kick the soccer ball, though in fact its only contact is with my shoe; when you touch my shoulder you are touching me, even when a shirt and a jacket interpose between your fingers and my skin. These experiences have nothing to do with my ownership of the clothes. The same jacket is not part of my ecological self when it hangs in my closet, or when I am carrying it home from the cleaners; to touch it in such cases is not to touch me at all. What matters is not possession or contact but agency and co-ordinate movement. The same principle explains why the practised wearer of an artificial limb so naturally perceives it as a part of the self. Such wearers have not mistakenly come to believe that the limbs are flesh-and-blood parts of their bodies. On the contrary, their perceptions are exactly correct: to the extent that the motion of a limb is responsive to one’s intentions and is co-ordinated with movements of the point of observation, it belongs to the ecological self.

He also gives example of the colloquial use of identification with your car while you are driving one. He also claims that this self is present from birth and only refines a bit with experience. He believes phantom limbs and neglect are pathologies associated with this kind of self.

In summary, here are some of the characteristics of the ecological self:
• The self, like the environment, exists objectively; many of its characteristics are specified by objectively-existing information. That information allows us to perceive not only the location of the ecological self but also the nature of its ongoing interaction with the environment.
•Much of the relevant information is kinetic, consisting of structure over time. Optical structure is particularly important, but self-specifying information is often available to several perceptual modalities at once.
•The ecological self is veridically perceived from earliest infancy; nevertheless self-perception develops and can become more adequate with increasing age and skill.

Next we come to the inter personal self:

The interpersonal self is the self as engaged in immediate unreflective social interaction with another person. Like the ecological self, it can be directly perceived on the basis of objectively existing information. Again like the ecological self, most of the relevant information it is essentially kinetic, i.e. consists of structures over time. In this case, however, the information—and the state of affairs that it specifies—come into existence only when two (or more) people are engaged in personal interaction. If the nature, direction, timing, and intensity of one person’s actions mesh appropriately with the nature/direction/timing/intensity of the other’s, they have jointly created an instance of what is often called intersubjectivity. The mutuality of their behaviour exists in fact and can be perceived by outside observers; more importantly, it is perceived by the participants themselves. Each of them can see (and hear, and perhaps feel) the appropriately interactive responses of the other. Those responses, in relation to one’s own perceived activity, specify the interpersonal self.

Then he illustrates some mother-child cooing examples and elaborates:

These interactions illustrate what Trevarthen has called ‘primary intersubjectivity’. The participants respond to each other immediately and coherently, in both action and feeling; their reciprocal activities are closely co-ordinated in time. The result is a shared structure of action—a structure that both of the participants enjoy, and that neither of them could have produced alone. Indeed, the contributions of the individual partners would be useless and foolish if they occurred by themselves. An elegant experiment by Lynne Murray (Murray & Trevarthen, 1985) demonstrates this point. Mothers and their 6 to 12 week-old babies, actually in separate rooms, interacted via double closed-circuit television. Each partner saw and heard a fullface, life-size video image of the other, with appropriate eye contact being made. As long as the video presentation was ‘live’, this system allowed interaction to proceed normally: the babies looked intently at their mothers with open and relaxed mouth, slightly raised eyebrows, and other signs of interest. The first minute of live interaction comprised the control condition. It was recorded on videotape; the tape of the mother was then rewound and immediately replayed on the infant’s screen. This second (replay) minute comprised the experimental condition. Although what the infants saw and heard was identically the same in both conditions—the same mother, the same gestures, the same displays of affection—their responses were dramatically different. In the experimental condition, the babies who had been happy a minute ago now exhibited signs of distress: they turned away from the mother’s image, frowned, grimaced, and fingered their clothing.10. (A final control presentation ensured that they had not simply become tired of the situation itself.) The subjects’ distress during the replay was evidently produced by some kind of mismatch between their mothers’ responses and their own.
Murray’s study shows that infants in normal face-to-face interactions are not just picking up information about their partners; they actually perceive the ongoing intersubjective relationship. J. J. Gibson’s (1979) principle that all perceiving involves co-perception of environment and self applies also to the social environment and to the interpersonal self, i.e. the self that is established in these interactions. Just as the ecological self is specified by the orientation and flow of optical texture, so the interpersonal self is specified by the orientation and flow of the other individual’s expressive gestures; just as the ecological self is articulated and confirmed by the effects of our own physical actions, so the interpersonal self is developed and confirmed by the effects of our own expressive gestures on our partner.

These examples (Stern gives many others) show again that intersubjectivity is anemotional business: the two partners are obviously sharing an affect. Nevertheless,the ordinary vocabulary of the emotions is not adequate to describe what is going on. It is not just that both are ‘happy’ or ‘excited’, but that the mother is precisely matching the pattern and temporal contour of the infant’s activity with her own. Such ‘vitality affects’ (Stern, 1985) are specified by information in several sensory modalities: in visible movement, in the emphasis and modulation of the voice, in bodily contact. Their specification is so rich that they are readily perceived and shared, not only between mothers and infants but between any two individuals in social contact. The resulting experience is an immediate awareness of both the other person and the (interpersonal) self, as well as of the specific present relationship between them.

Now comes the important part. The claim that developmental failures at this stage are associated with autism. I would in parallel surmise that too much reliance on this intersubjective self should however dispose towards psychosis too.

The close parallels between ecological and interpersonal self-perception should not be allowed to obscure certain important differences. The successful achievement of intersubjectivity depends not only on the operation of the perceptual and motor systems but on some additional, specifically human mechanism that permits us to relate to members of our own species. The mechanism can fail, and it has often been suggested that the dramatic condition called infantile autism, characterised from the outset by a total lack of interest in relationships with people, results from just such a failure. Leo Kanner made this point explicitly in the paper that established autism as a diagnostic category: “We must, then, assume that these children have come into the world with innate inability to form the usual, biologically provided affective contact with people, just as other children come into the world with innate physical or intellectual handicaps” (1943, p. 250). Murray (1984) has recently presented a similar argument, and suggested that the effects observed in her double closedcircuit television paradigm may provide useful models for autism research.

Awareness of the interpersonal self is almost invariably accompanied by a simultaneous awareness of the ecological self. A wealth of information specifies their co-existence: I can see that the person to whom you are addressing yourself (the interpersonal me) is the very person who is located here, at this point of observation in this environment (the ecological me). For this reason, these two aspects of the self are rarely experienced as distinct. Such a separation can occur, however, if we attend exclusively to one class of information and ignore the other entirely. To attend only to ecological information structures, ignoring the interpersonal, is to treat another individual merely as a non-human object—perhaps to walk past him, or shove him aside, without engaging in any form of intersubjectivity. The opposite case can occur in very intimate personal contact, as between lovers or (as psychoanalysts have long suggested) between mothers and infants: one’s attention is so fully directed to the ongoing intersubjective experience that one does not pick up any ecological-self-specifying information at all. This does not mean that lovers and infants have no ecological selves, but only that there are moments at which those aspects of their selves may go unnoticed.

It is interesting to note that Neisser equates too much inetrsubjectivity with the obsession (or colloquial) madness involved in bond between lovers/ parents-child.

Next he analyzes the extended self:

The objectively-existing kinds of information considered so far—optical flow, effective movement, other people’s expressive gestures—specify only the present self. We can see what we are doing right now, and with whom, but how can we know what we did yesterday or last week? The answer, of course, is just that we remember, the information is in our own heads. The extended self is the self as it was in the past and as we expect it to be in the future, known primarily on the basis of memory.

He discusses amnesia as a pathology of thisslef and distinguishes between episodic memory and scripts involved at this stage.

Genuine remembering occurs when at least some information about the past is disentangled from the current situation. In many cases, that information is about my past, i.e. it is a record of some aspect of the extended self14. In remembering something that I did or experienced on some’other occasion—by remembering that I did it rather than merely how to do it—I necessarily became aware that my existence transcends the present moment. This can happen in two rather different ways. To the extent that what I recall is a unique and particular past event (say, presenting a colloquium talk at the University of Aberdeen in November 1987), I am having an episodic memory (Tulving, 1972). But to the extent that what I recall is a repeated and familiar routine (there is a script for colloquiua that includes arriving in town, talking to colleagues, being introduced, giving the talk, answering questions, etc.), I am using a general event representation (Nelson, 1986) or script (Schank & Abelson, 1977). Both kinds of memory contribute to the extended self. / am the person who gave that colloquium in Aberdeen: I am also a person who gives colloquium talks from time to time. While these two examples are certainly not among the most central components of my extended self (!), that self can be thought as a kind of cumulated total of such memories: the things I remember having done and the things I think of myself as doing regularly.

Recent studies show that episodic recall, like script knowledge, is in place by the age of three. A 2 \ -year-old child will often fail to remember the particular ‘target event’ that an interviewer first asks about, but s/he will usually have at least some fairly accurate memories that go back 3 or more months (Todd & Perlmutter, 1980; Fivush, Gray & Fromhoff, 1987). Despite these findings, I doubt that episodic memory contributes very much to the sense of self at this early age. Children under 3 years are not very interested in the past, even when they can recall it. They would much rather talk about something in the present—or play and not talk at all—then spend effort in remembering earlier experiences (Galotti & Neisser, 1982). That interest increases as the child come to realise the social significance of autobiographical recall, i.e. its potential for extending relationships beyond the present moment. The most important adaptive function of memory may be that it makes permanent interpersonal relations possible, and thus vastly strengthens the coherence of human groups (Neisser, 1988). Note that even rather sloppy memories can serve this purpose: my recall of a shared event must be close enough to yours to avoid bizarre discrepancies, but it need not be accurate in every detail. Unsurprisingly, this is just the level of mnemonic accuracy that people generally achieve.

I would like to pause here and reflect on the fact that in amnesia the intersubjective self is dysfunctional- that in my view should lead to problems at this level too. In particular because they do not appreciative the social subtleties that should guide the appropriate memory and scrips generation, they end up with too much detailed memory (savant abilities) and too rigrous scripts (repetitive and restrictive movements and interests). On the other hand too much intersubjectivity reliance in memory and scripts formation should lead to inaccurate and self-serving memories and scripts that are partly delusional and confabulatory.

The extended self becomes increasingly important as we grow older. Most adults develop a more or less standard life-narrative that effectively defines the self in terms of a particular series of remembered experiences. These accounts are continually being extended (and occasionally revised!), creating a narrative structure much like that of more formal autobiographies (Barclay, 1986). As in the case of social relationships, the memory that supports these narratives need not be highly accurate. It also need not deal in equal detail with every epoch of life. Recent studies suggest that elderly people have particularly rich and accessible memories for the period of adolescence and young adulthood.

Note also that how as we move up the developmental stages we move from agentic/experiential “I” to narrative ‘me’, the two types of selves I discussed recently in a different context.

Next he moves to the Private self:

Each of us has conscious experiences that are not available to anyone else. Some of these are the inner aspects of perception and action; others (dreams, for example) are quite independent of the individual’s actual present circumstances. These personal experiences are an important source of self-knowledge15. When are they first used for that purpose? While even the youngest children surely have a conscious mental life (including an awareness of the ecological and interpersonal selves!), I suspect that they do not yet take the immediacy of their experience as an important line of demarcation between themselves and the rest of the world. They do not need to: such a line already exists for them, established by ecologically available information. Although each of us certainly “dichotomizes the Kosmos in a different place,” as William James put it (1890, p. 290), we first do so by exterospection rather than by introspection.

We not only have private experience but remember it, recalling dreams we had last night or thoughts we had last week and thus augmenting the extended self. The importance of this contribution varies substantially from one person to another, perhaps in part because memory for mental experiences is relatively poor. Pains are notoriously difficult to recall; we remember that we were in pain, but cannot easily recapture the quality of the experience. Most people forget most of their dreams almost immediately.

Philosophers in the Western tradition—indeed, in many traditions—have often treated the private self as the only self worth knowing. Descartes is primarily responsible for the further claim that it is the only self we can be sure about, all other experiences being subject to error and delusion. I have argued, in contrast, that the ecological and interpersonal selves are perceived effectively and surely from the beginning of life. (This argument does not dispute the value of the private self, only its epistemiological priority.) In any case it is worth noting that individuals differ widely in the value and importance they attach to inner experience. This was roughly Jung’s original distinction between extraverts and introverts. In the extravert, ” . . . thinking is oriented by the object and objective data” (Jung, 1921/1971, p. 342), while introverted thinking ” . . . is neither determined by objective data nor directed to them; it is a thinking that starts from the subject and is directed to subjective ideas or subjective facts” (p. 344). These are essentially differences in the allocation of attention. All such forms of information and experience are available to everyone, but within the normal range they are not all equally noticed, equally used, or equally valued. Outside the normal range are the pathologies of the private self, which include obsessive thinking, repression and denial of feelings, multiple personality, and related conditions.

The private self to me is the most mundane and boring aspect of self- the “I think therefore I am” dictum.

Next we move on to the most interesting conceptual self:

Each of us has a concept of him/herself as a particular person in a familiar world. These self-concepts originate in social life, and so they vary widely across different societies and cultures. A few concepts of my own can serve as convenient examples: I am an American, a husband, and a professor. I assume that I have certain social obligations and political rights; that I have a liver and a spleen and a distinctive pattern of nuclear DNA; that I am a fast reader, poor at remembering names, and neither handsome nor ugly; that in general I do not think enough about the future consequences of my actions. Everyone could make such a list, and no two lists would be the same. Even the relevant dimensions need not be the same: a member of the Lohorung Rai in East Nepal would include the state of his Niwa (Hardman, 1981), and a medieval Englishman the state of his soul.

In the face of this complexity, it is useful to begin by considering concepts and categories of other kinds. What do we mean, for example, when we say that something is a ‘dog’? The so-called classical theory of concepts, which would claim that the class dog is defined by certain necessary and sufficient features, no longer seem adequate: it is too difficult to think of really definitive features, and those that do come to mind (e.g. ‘has four legs’) are just as hard to define as dog itself (Murphy & Medin, 1985). The classical theory also fails to explain the typicality effects discovered by Eleanor Rosch (1978); in most categories, some members function as ‘prototypes’ while others are more marginal. But category membership cannot just be a matter of similarity to the prototype either: besides the difficulty of defining ‘similarity’, such a definition would miss the point that many categories, including dog, are conceptually all-or-none. (Any given animal either is or isn’t a dog.) These difficulties are resolved by realising that concepts do not stand alone: each is defined with reference to a network of others, i.e. to a theory.

Many linguists, philosophers, and psychologists have made this point (e.g. Lakoff, 1987; McCauley, 1987; Medin & Wattenmaker, 1987). To call something a dog is to assign it to a place in our theory of animals in general and dogs in particular, i.e. to assert that it occupies space, has internal organs, must eat or starve to death, is likely to behave in certain ways, is bigger than a mouse and smaller than an elephant, should be treated in a particular manner appropriate to dogs, had two parents who were dogs and will (if it becomes a parent) have puppies, etc. These beliefs are components (not all equally central) of our implicit theory of doghood—of what George Lakoff (1987) would call an ‘idealised cognitive model’. Children have such models quite early, at least where animals are concerned (Carey, 1985).

I love the references to Lakoff and am a firm believer in his other theory of conceptual metaphors. Next he talks about paranoia and how that may be a result of too much theorizing. This is fortunate reference I have found because just the other day CMB, a reader of this blog pointed that paranoia is hard to explain if we treat autism and schizophrenia as opposites and grant a role for opposing effects of Oxytocin. My reply was that oxytocin may be more a social hormone than a trust hormone and paranoia is more a excessive theorizing about others defect than a suspicion deficit.

These principles apply equally to the concept of self. My notion of what I am, like your notion of what you are, reflects a cognitive model embeded in a theoretical network. It too is based primarily on what I have been told, not only in the form of general cultural assumptions but also of communications addressed to me in particular. Like other concepts it tends to govern what I notice; in this case, what I notice about myself. Like other theories, it is not necessarily correct; all of us know people whose self-theories seem off the mark in certain respects. Nevertheless most self-theories do work fairly well, at least in areas where they make predictions about real experience. (Where this is not the case—e.g. in paranoia—we tend to classify them as pathological.) When Epstein (1973) proposed that psychologists should think of the self as a theory rather than as an independently-existing entity, he was talking about the conceptual self.

Next closely followed are references to Carol Dweck- another psychologist I just adore.

Although the self-concept can usefully be regarded as a single cognitive model, it usually comprises several more or less distinct sub-theories. Three of these deserve specific mention, although they cannot be considered in detail here. Role theories, which have been much studied by sociologists, are our own notions of how we fit into society: of what we should do and how we should be treated. They originate, I think, in children’s understanding of the scripts in which they participate; hence they are in place very early. Internal models, in contrast, concern or bodies and our minds. In modern Western culture, self-theories of the body (like my firm belief that I have an internal organ called the liver18) are mostly based on biology and medicine. Theories of the mind, in contrast, are the province of psychology, philosophy, and religion. Children are presented with these theories by the people around them, and do their best to interpret their own lives in terms of what they have been told. When and what they are told depends, of course, on the particular culture in which they are growing up.

Trait attributions are an important class of self-theories that straddle the boundary between social roles and internal models. We may believe, for example, that we are clever or stupid, handsome or ugly, fortunate or unlucky. Although these dimensions are essentially conventional—not all cultures classify along the same dimensions, or value them to the same extent—they can be of considerable importance. In this vein, Carol Dweck (1986) has shown that children’s beliefs about intelligence affect their actual performance in school. Those who believe that intelligence is a fixed quantity (and that they themselves are stupid) learn much less from school experience than those who have a self-concept that allows for intellectual growth and development. Although such attributions are acquired early, they are not impervious to change.

And thus he concludes talking about some tantalizing tangential thoughts on the perceived and felt unity of self, how we know our neighbors as ourselves , the ‘doer’ as opposed to ‘knower’ and admiring or despising oneself- all perhaps food for the next three stages (relational, reflexive/recursive/generative and integrative ) of self.

I enjoyed reading the article and would like to thank whole heartedly the ‘References wanted’ room on FrinedFeed and Kubke in particular, without whom I would have not had access to this lovely article.

Neisser, U. (1988). Five kinds of self-knowledge Philosophical Psychology, 1 (1), 35-59 DOI: 10.1080/09515088808572924

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