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.

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