Friday, 18 July 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 12

The point I have made over and again in these postings is that all this has to come from somewhere. All that abuse and loathing - the contempt and derision, the fury, the tears, come from somewhere.
Now, as I said some way back now, we can talk about nature and nurture here, and souls and free will. I don't want to rehash all that. To summarise, we're actually saying here that either I am genetically predisposed to do that to myself (and to O), or I learned to do it (not as in lessons, but by example - the way small children learn to do most things), or I am just somehow intrinsically like that, or I chose to be this way, or some chaotic combination of the above. Vincent you are right in saying I have not proved anything, and perhaps it is not possible to prove anything beyond all doubt here, but some things are more likely than others, given what we know. As I said, even at its best psychology is not like physics. You can't do repeatable experiments on children keeping all other factors constant. It's all about trends and probabilities and it is all but impossible to make predictions except in the most generalised way. People tend to look at this and say that it's not worth even trying then but I don't agree. You can come up with plausible stories. As Einstein would say - you can do thought experiments. As Greg House would say, you can see if the symptoms fit. In House they often test their hypothesis by treating. If the treatment works, they were probably right about the diagnosis.

I've been trying to think about genetics and I wish I knew more. As a plant ecologist, with all the recent advances in DNA analysis, I had to know more than the average person about how genetics works but frankly I am still far from expert. There is so much new stuff coming along all the time. Trying to visualise how DNA might influence psychology in any definitive way is way beyond me. What I do know is that genes don't determine behaviour in a simple one to one way. They don't even determine anatomy that way. They interact with the environment all the time and in the case of us humans that means other people and what they say and do.
Coming at it from the other end, from what I do know, genes directly affect hormones and neurology. This means it is not hard to imagine how genes might affect the production of adrenaline for example, so some people might be more aggressive, more quick to take fright or less risk averse for example. Other hormones like oxytocin and serotonin affect how we respond to other people for example, or to stress, while testosterone and oestrogen influence how competitive we are and how much we want sex/children. More straight forward physiological effects of our DNA affect how well our ears work (which affects communication), how much energy we have (which affects fulfilment), how tall we get (which affects status), and what medical conditions we are prone to (which affect everything), all of which could influence how we get on in life. From this sort of thing it is easy to imagine, even for the non specialist, that DNA might affect how bright and attentive we are, how well we bond with other people, and how preoccupied we are with our status. So far so basic - note the use of the words 'might affect' and 'could influence', as opposed to 'determines' or 'causes'. As I mentioned before, the average ratio is about 50:50 nature/nurture and it is not a simple matter of genes laying the foundations and the environment building on that. The two influence each other all through life, adjusting and reinforcing or counteracting in feedback loops and synergies. At its most complex it is pure chaos theory - one tiny flutter over here causing a tsunami over there, but that's not the same as saying it's random or intrinsically unknowable. It's just very complex.

A couple of things spring to mind to illustrate this. One is a pair of kittens one of my ex girlfriends got. They were tiny when they arrived and could not have learned anything by example from their mother but within weeks they were in the garden stalking and pouncing on things like any other cat. How does DNA do that?
I was also struck by some examples of identical twins, separated at birth, sharing some bizarre quirks and peccadilloes, such as a predilection for farting in elevators and running away. How can that be in the genes? These questions, in case they be interpreted as doubts about the entire fabric of psychology and genetics and science in general, are exactly the kinds of questions scientists ask when they are thinking about research projects, so don't get too excited, you people of faith. Simply saying 'well it's got to be the soul hasn't it' is not good enough. Just because we don't know the answer doesn't make it legitimate to insert some unknowable entity into the conversation. What is this 'soul' of which you speak? What is it made of? How does it work? How does it have its effect on us as physical beings? Now who's doing the arm waving?

Anyway, enough about that. I look at my family and I think about where I got the way I am from. I look for general trends.
On my dad's side there's a lot of anger, that's for sure. My dad suppressed his because he didn't want to be like his father, my grandpa Fred, but he still had it and we were all well aware of it. Maybe it would have been better if he'd just exploded once in a while. I'm more like Fred in that I have a lot of anger at the way the world is set up, and a lot of frustrations. He came over as this embittered and paranoid old man, ranting on about the council and the government and whoever else had pissed him off lately. He genuinely thought the world was out to get him. I like to think I have a more political/philosophical, less personal take on the problem, but the feeling is the same - one of impotent rage. Dad on the other hand believed in order, in democracy and trades unions and not just complaining but doing something constructive about it. He was mostly frustrated with people because they didn't do what was right. He was afraid of chaos and had no time for people who did not do their bit. My brother Ian also it turns out has a lot of anger in him. It's mostly expressed itself in a rather punk sort of way - a kind of cocky exuberance, which can be quite entertaining but I think there is more to it than that. He keeps it down as our dad did. He doesn't freak out like I do.
What else? Grandpa I know would have liked nothing better than to be marooned on a desert island. Perhaps it was the demands of a loveless marriage and two unplanned children, but I know he would rather have just been able to take himself off somewhere to do what he wanted and not to have to always be keeping up appearances to someone else. He thought back to the war with nostalgia - not because he wanted to kill people or be macho but because it gave him the chance to travel and to have a clear and justifiable purpose in life. But failing that he was a shed man when it came down to it, as I and my dad and my bro are/were. Dad again tried not to be like his father and I suspect pretty much made himself join clubs and sports teams and to not be an outcast and a misfit. I don't know if it came naturally, but my bro has always been very gregarious. He's become more self-sufficient with age. In fact we've become much more alike with age, though I think he is more like dad than I am. He is more laddish, better with people, more into games, but also less emotionally open.
I'm more like my mum in a lot of ways. She's quite insular although she has made friends of her own since dad died. We talk a lot more about people and how they behave, though my mum is incredibly private about her self - very reserved and unaffectionate. She also went into explosive rages and deep sulks when we were kids. The rest of her family - her brothers and her father were much more business-like people than my dad's - more pragmatic - more interested in getting on in the world as it is, rather than wishing it was different. We were all working class but mum's family were more conservative and had much more of a problem with foreigners and other minorities and granddad Joe was a well-known contrarian bigot, though he mellowed with age and I genuinely liked him more than any of the others by the end.
I've not mentioned the two grandmas. That's because I honestly don't have much to say about them. Mum's mum, Dora, died when I was little, dad's only a couple of years ago. Both were old-fashioned chubby mumsy types, completely unlike my own mother. Dad's mum, Kay, 'suffered with her nerves' which may have been a result of her abusive husband or or she might have been like that before, and of course worrying was part of a woman's duties back then, as was being looked down on by the men, but my dad was huge worrier too (it might be what finished him off) and Ian and I both suffer from anxiety. I just about remember grandma's parents, Pop and Nanny Peters, and they were salt of the earth. Everybody liked them.

I'm going to stop there. I don't think it's very helpful because the more I think about it the harder it is to come up with any useful generalisations. It would take a great deal more analysis and a far bigger data set (I know almost nothing about the wider family) to even attempt to identify a strong signal. There's just too much noise.
In any case 'heredity' does not just mean genetics. I could have got my anger due to the over-production of some hormone which is linked to a specific gene, or simply by living with my dad and seeing how he was, or a bit of both. The aim of the exercise here has been more to demonstrate the difficulties (if that needed demonstrating) than to come up with some conclusions.
What I'm left with then is this state of affairs - the Naturalist part of the investigation that simply says 'look at all this stuff' without getting too ahead of itself and jumping to a conclusion. To wit - I have all this anger and panic and shame. This is how it plays out day to day. This is what my childhood was like. This is what the people I grew up with were like. This is the period in history and the place in the world I grew up in. As I have said over and over - and I really want to drive this point home - this stuff comes from somewhere. To simply say it comes from some unknowable place as the people of faith do, or that I simply chose to be this way out of my own free will as the existentialists say is not good enough. Even if we can't identify the precise chain of events we can posit a story and see if the symptoms fit. If possible we then treat it and see if the treatment works.

To recap - I have this way of talking to myself when things go badly and I used it on O when he didn't do things the way I thought they should be done. I use it on the imaginary tekkies who design my PC and my car and even on inanimate objects like the hose at the nursery when they fail to cooperate, and on the slugs and other natural events.The feeling and the reaction is the same. The same contempt, the same impotent rage, the same shame.
Probably there are some straight forward physiological/genetic factors. My energy levels seem to fluctuate wildly. I get tired easily. I sweat profusely, but even these could be effects rather than causes. The sweat gets in my eyes, attracts flies and makes my skin itch (maybe connected to the allergic rashes I used to get?) I experience hunger as anger and force myself on when I should stop and eat. I experience tiredness as a nagging to get things over with. I tend to get a migraine the next day if I force myself on.

Given that some of this is probably innate (by which I mean genetic) is it possible to imagine having the same physiological symptoms but reacting in another way? Of course it is. I could have been easier on myself. Even if the tiredness and the allergies and the sweating are purely physiological, as opposed to reactions to stress I could have rested more, taken my time, let myself off more. What stops me?
What stops me is the driving myself on - the anxiety and the nagging, the sneering and the derision, the loathing and the contempt. Now is that a genetic thing or is it something I've learned? It could be a hormone thing, or a neurological thing that tends to wind me up when I'm under pressure rather than take things steadily. It might be that I have some innate difficulty with socialising that means that when things don't go according to plan that I expect contempt, derision etc.
I'm trying to give the genetics the benefit of the doubt here, but I can't help feeling that whatever the genetic bedrock of the problem, the reactions to it could be more constructive at every level. In short, I can't really bring myself to believe that all the levels of my reactions to trouble are simply expressions of genes. Perhaps I don't know enough about what genes can make us do. Perhaps the twins' farting in elevators does have some explicable atavistic root? Perhaps they're marking their territory somehow. Perhaps evolution worked in such a way that making a smell in a crowded but enclosed space somehow increased the breeding success of some individuals. There are stranger behaviours in the world of nature.

But no, I think for now anyway, I'm just going to have to go for the hypothesis that the story is about something that I experienced and learned to emulate. It strikes me as the most parsimonious explanation apart from anything. Someone treated people that way (with contempt and derision when they made mistakes) and I absorbed it and carried it on.
So, knowing what I know, how might that story go?
And more importantly, how can I treat it?

to be continued...


Vincent said...

So, now we have been on an Odyssey of a whodunnit, a search far and wide for the culprit. All we found was one or other throw of the dice, some form of randomness. Like Ulysses we finally come home to the self, discovering that it’s riven with self-hatred.

To look for its antecedents is nothing more than a distraction, a displacement activity. We have to start somewhere, so why not here and now? Stop looking for a scapegoat. Why not declare self-hatred for practical purposes the root cause of all the other annoyances, and devote oneself single-mindedly and with detachment to its eradication?

It's clear that you can do it because you have faced up to everything else along the way. This could be a major step to self-liberation.

Steve Law said...

"Why not declare self-hatred for practical purposes the root cause of all the other annoyances"
Because I don't know why you'd think that makes sense.
Why would a person hate himself without a reason?

"Stop looking for a scapegoat" Or perhaps, Vincent, I'm looking for a cause. Why wouldn't I do that? It's how I'd approach any other problem. (What made the holes in these leaves? Why is my car making that noise? Why did my home-made loaf collapse?)

A scapegoat is a spurious cause - just someone to blame.
Apparently I have wasted those first few entries explaining that I am looking for the actual cause of my distress, not some random by-stander.

What I don't understand is why you are so keen for me to cut short my investigation? Why do you not want me to go further?

You are not alone. My parents I'm sure would not want me to pursue this investigation because they are afraid of what I might find. I on the other hand will be there to help O if he ever wants to do something similar because I know I have things to answer for. I will be there to apologise. I am sorry but I am not afraid.

Wow, I am so angry with you.
'Never mind all your pain' you say. 'You just hate yourself for no good reason. Accept it. Nothing to do with anyone else, certainly not your family. ("Nothing to do with us guv. Innocent by-standers...") Why should we parents take any responsibility for how our children turn out? (unless of course they turn out well)' It's just random. You hate yourself. I hate myself. We all hate ourselves. Deal with it.'

Vincent said...

Well the point is that you are looking through the lens of your anger so you cannot see the thing clearly.

It is true that if something is eating your leaves you need to know if it is a slug or a caterpillar because each may need a different anti-creature spray. Your car han have parts replaced. Etc. But I don't know how you can repair your past: your DNA, your parents, the events that led up to now.

This is why I say that in practical terms the antecedents are irrelevant. If you were lost in a forest, you might be able to retrace your footsteps if you had for example the skills of an Aboriginal tracker.

But as long as you are angry with me none of this plain talking will do any good. Which is why I say that it is necessary to deal with the self-hatred, the anger and the other uncontrollable emotions first. And then you will be able to look at the thing objectively and see what can be done. If you still think it is necessary.

Steve Law said...

"...then you will be able to look at the thing objectively and see what can be done."
Ah - ok - so you are not necessarily saying it's not worth trying.

Firstly I am not simply angry all the time. In fact it's a relatively small part of the time (10%?) but when I am it feels completely out of proportion, it makes me feel wretched rather than better and of course it affects others. Other times I suspect I can be more objective than most people, or at least, more willing to face up to things.

Secondly - "I don't know how you can repair your past"
Me neither, but I think understanding is never wasted. Even if it made no difference in the end I think it is interesting, but I see no reason to assume a priori that it won't achieve anything. In fact I have already made major changes. If I had never made any progress in my life, I'd think yes, by the age of 51, it's probably not going to happen, but that's not how it is.

Thirdly, interestingly, my anger at you yesterday feels reasonable and proportional and quite different. Even if I did manage to repair my past I hope that I'd still be able to get angry when the situation warranted it. It's a useful emotion, or at least no less useful than other emotions.

I really appreciate this 'plain talking'. I wouldn't have it any other way but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to agree with what you say. Be glad we can trust each other enough to have a 'full and frank discussion' without descending into abuse.

Steve Law said...

I've given this some more thought. I don't know if your silence reflects your exasperation with me and my continued futile 'displacement activity' or if you're just waiting to see what I'll write next.
Anyway - "looking through the lens of your anger so you cannot see the thing clearly" - I could accuse you of looking through the lens of whatever emotion you happen to feel. Emotion does that. Anger gets a bad rap - it's no worse a lens than love for example, which routinely distorts things, or guilt, or contentment - where a person doesn't want their settled view of the world disturbed by uncomfortable ideas. The point, I'm sure you'd agree, is to retrieve those ideas in tranquility, or whatever the quote is, to look at them with a more disinterested eye, which is what I've been trying to do in these essays.
I can't write angry. Those first few entries where I tried to recreate my fury were hard to write, not because of any reluctance but exactly because it is difficult to remember what it's like to be in that frame of mind when I later sit down to write. The best I can do is try to observe myself during the attack (which is what it feels like) and to sit down to write soon after so the memory is still fresh.

I don't know if this archaeology will yield results, but actually, neither do you.
To say "it is necessary to deal with the self-hatred, the anger and the other uncontrollable emotions first. And then you will be able to look at the thing objectively and see what can be done" is like saying 'deal with your hunger first, then you can have something to eat.'

Vincent said...

Not exasperated at all, dear Steve. I made some points and you answered them. You exposed the poor aim of some of my points, & raised further ones which appeared to invite my disagreement, but I didn't feel that would advance things much.

So yes, I am indeed waiting to see what you will write next. Looking at previous interaction, I regret the tone of what I wrote, but then it seemed a "proportionate response" at the time, blunt feedback which came naturally as between friends who don't have to pull punches.

And I completely take your point about hunger as analogy of anger. It's there and not to be denied. And if hunger reaches a certain point and someone is in the dock for a consequent criminal charge, one doesn't want the pontification of a fat judge who has never missed a square meal in his life.

One thing I certainly won't do is defend anything I've said before in this matter. I am not content with it, and look forward to your next expression of uncomfortable ideas.

Steve Law said...

Oh. Ok then. Excellent. I've been planning the next one for a while but as we're moving house this week i'm not sure when i'll have time to write it.
See you then