Psychology Lessons

One of the first-year courses at my seminary was basic Psychology. The lecturer’s major theme was ‘Relationships’. Everything that was said about interpersonal relationships and appropriate boundaries made sense. ‘The best boundaries are flexible boundaries’ – we were encouraged to be aware of dangers, but not rigid. But then there was the concept of ‘intrapersonal relationships’.

Intrapersonal what?

If your inner life is dominated by the bit that reasons with only the occasional shout from the feeling centre and no inner klaxon warning about the views of others, there’s not a lot of scope for relationship. There’s only the rational me. That inner me might be holding a rule book, and even editing it sometimes, but I’d hard pressed to describe that as a ‘relationship’.

If, on the other hand, your feeling centre is having a constant ding-dong with your thinking centre, that might be a bit more like an inner relationship. (I think a novel inspired by Isaac Asimov was trying to explore this kind of idea by describing a planet’s weather machine run by a calculating computer, ‘Dum’, and a human-like positronic brain, ‘Dee’, constantly cross-checking each other’s suggestions.) And if your feeling centre is inhabited by a cast of skirmishing emotions (as depicted in the recent movie, Inside Out) then it must be getting pretty noisy in there!

The psychology tutor also saw the students for one-to-one sessions and for group sessions. The groups began with a ‘check-in’ about one’s emotional state. But when your feeling centre is mostly asleep, there’s not a lot to report. For this tutor, ‘neutral’ was not an acceptable description of how one was currently feeling. But it was difficult to find anything else honest to say. Was I tempted to say something dishonest, which might be what the tutor wanted to hear? Well, since it is wrong to lie, I couldn’t do that. So I had to struggle to find the merest scrap of a suitable emotion.

One-to-one sessions were no easier. The tutor was clearly proceeding on the basis that I had a fully working ‘feeling centre’, and was deliberately refusing to be candid with him. Now, he had taught us the importance of ‘unconditional positive regard‘, yet I was finding no respect for my utterly honest utterances about what was going on inside my head. Eventually I did have an emotion I could report – a build-up of anger for being taken for a liar when I was speaking the absolute truth on every occasion!

Note to Psychologists: if your client is reporting a lack of emotions, then as well as exploring reasons s/he may be repressing them, please consider the possibility that s/he is on the autistic spectrum!

Postscript: Now, more than a decade on from those classes, I see Wikipedia has a fascinating article on intrapersonal communication. I recognise there is a philosophical conundrum in describing my inner voice as a dialogue or a monologue – if there is only one ‘me’ monologuing, why do I need to put things into words? But if it is a dialogue, who are the two parties? Ah, but since it takes a finite time to construct and develop a thought in words, perhaps the communication is between ‘past me’ and ‘future me’. No thought is instantaneous; that’s not physically possible, and besides, it takes time to think the words. But that means every thought is smeared out across a finite time, just as someone’s spoken sentence only makes sense when we review the last second or two of speech as a whole. A thought occupies a small tract of time which looks self-contained in hindsight – a thought is inherently dynamic!

But relationship is a broader concept than mere communication, and I am fairly sure my lecturer was not only intending to refer to our inner use of language. I think I am on the right track by positing that my brain does not experience the inner diversity of typical humans. This is a field autism researchers are only now beginning to explore.

Experts in Humanity

We need heralds of the Gospel who are experts in humanity, who know in depth the hearts of the men of today, who participate in their joys and hopes, concerns and sorrows, and at the same time are persons in love with God.” St John Paul II, Address to the Symposium of the Council of the European Bishops’ Conference, October 11, 1985, n. 13.

Ever since I was a child, I have known that other human beings were different from me. This didn’t particularly bother me; I thought all human beings were different from each other. It was only when I received my diagnosis of Asperger’s that I realised that most human beings were different from me in the same way! So most people can understand each other better because what is going on in their head is a good model for what’s also going on in the other person’s.

Have you ever tried to operate a Mac when all the computers you have ever used before were Microsoft Windows? Or to find the settings on an Android phone when you are only used to the Apple iPhone? You have to learn to adjust to a different way of doing things. The two phones or the two computers can do the same kind of things, but have different processes going on under the hood.

If you’re a typical human being, here’s what I think is going on in your head.

You have a ‘feeling centre’ which is continuously generating emotional responses to the situation you’re in.

You have a ‘thinking centre’ which can rationally analyse problems and situations.

You have an ‘inner critic’ which is ceaselessly passing judgment on possible courses of actions by assessing what other people would think of you if you did such-and-such.

You have a ‘personal template’ which depicts the kind of person you aspire to be seen as, which may be based on one or more role models you admire.

Your current state of mind represents whatever balance you have currently achieved between your thinking and feeling centres, and your inner critic, with reference to the personal template.

All of that probably seems so blindingly obvious to you that you are surprised that I’ve gone to the bother of writing it down. The thing is, that’s not what’s going on in my head.

My feeling centre is basically asleep (think of the Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland). It takes a major jolt to stir it to react – give me an unexpected kiss, accuse me of a crime I didn’t commit, or pull out in front of me in the fast lane, and it will wake up and feel something. But not otherwise.

My thinking centre is constantly active.

I have no inner critic. I can choose to use my thinking centre to act as one, but I have to make a conscious decision to do that. Otherwise I am blissfully free of that constant warning klaxon going off in your head.

I don’t have a personal template. What I do have is a ‘personal rulebook’. It contains the rules of human behaviour I believe I should obey. Where do those rules come from? From what I learned at my mother’s knee, from the Bible, from the Catholic Church and from my own experience of ‘what works’ in practice. Some of these rules carry greater authority than others.

So for the vast majority of my conscious behaviour, I am a rational animal living out a set of rules unencumbered by emotional pulls or pressure to manipulate what other people think of me. This is a mixed blessing! I am seldom glum, but seldom consciously joyful. I am uninhibited by what others think of me – but most other people will judge me according to whether I fit their expectations of social behaviour.

Nevertheless, I have to interact with you, as a human being and perhaps as your pastor. I need to know what is going on in your head. St John Paul II proposes that I should become an ‘expert in humanity’. I might even have to conform to your expectations of me to gain your trust. My head is not a good model for what’s going on in yours. So my expertise must start with a model of a typical human head. One of my main hopes for this blog is that together we can put together a good description of how a typical human thinks, in terms which will be intelligible to an Aspie. Comments welcome!