A Natural History of Self-knowledge

The Self-Knowledge Instinct:  A Just-So Story

Self-knowledge may feed the soul, but society treats it almost like poison. Why?  On some hints from evolutionary psychology, I’ve created a historical fable to answer this question.


Our ancestors learned to lie to themselves about unruly impulses, so they could more easily lie to others.

The interests of social stability would have obliged group members to subdue and hide unruly emotions—jealousy, anger, lust—the human stirrings that, if allowed to run riot, would cause constant uproar.  The social codes of our forager ancestors, our primate cousins, would have proscribed the unrestrained expression of such desires and passions. None was allowed, for example, to steal primitive tools—like usefully-shaped stones and branches.  Despite these codes, a human hunter might “borrow” a well-crafted spear to gain tribal status.  How would he conceal the knowledge of his own transgression?   He’d have to lie.  But wouldn’t his lie betray itself in awkward gestures and a nervous face?  An extra precaution against these self-incriminating clues had to be found.  The most efficient was found in self-deception:  he would make himself believe his own lie;  then he could gracefully lie to others.  (Humans, of course, didn’t invent deception; it occurs throughout nature.  For example, insects assume disguises for sexual success.  And botanists may have discovered self-deception in plants!)  


Paradoxically, practice and collective learning in the arts of self-deception would have gradually improved general self-control.  Both the delays necessitated by deceit, and the planning required for increasingly complex tricks, would have strengthened frustration tolerance, the sinew of self-control. 


Self-deception strengthened self-control, and it eased the mental load of the tensions that accompanied self-control.

Likewise, altruism and other social controls, with their evolutionary advantages—were the fruits of progressive mastery of impulses. For example, our foremothers would have learned to subjugate their own interests to their children’s; child welfare depended on maternal self-restraint.  Similarly, loyalty to a tribal leader would have required setting aside jealousies and lusts.  But how did primitive minds tolerate the tensions of self-control?  Self-deception would have eased their mental load by obscuring inconvenient or dangerous impulses and creating the inner illusion of harmonious single-minded devotion.   


Over the millennia, the progress of human self-deception would have refined competitive strategies, encouraged more complex social hierarchies and specialized roles, and civilized our discourse.  Grabs for power or sex would have given way to persuasive but respectful conversation, or hidden maneuvering, performed with only slight awareness of the subject’s aims.  More and more oblivious to their disruptive impulses, people could faithfully fulfill their cultural functions. 


Self-deception generated a subterranean river of thought that spawned creativity and the arts.

Self-deception would have also generated a subterranean river of thought flowing beneath the surface of awareness; it would surface in dreams, fantasies, art and music.   By spawning creativity and higher mental work, this invisible current would humanize our culture.  


Self-deception Took a toll; it alienated people from themselves, their neighbors and their world.

But self-deception would also have taken a toll:  It would have blinded people to themselves; self-blinding allowed the misdirection of mental energy; misused mental energy strained mind and body. What began as a noble attempt to balance the mind and preserve social connections would eventually debase human nature.  It tended to alienate people from themselves, their neighbors, and their world; to sink humanity into a collective mental illness.  For example, dangerous rageful impulses, having been denied in one’s self, could be projected onto a neighboring tribe, subsequently seen as dangerous.  Then, in self-protection, the denier could dehumanize the imaginary enemy to justify their destruction.  Or, the urge for retribution might be denied in oneself or one’s tribe, then externalized onto thunderstorms or hurricanes, leading to paranoid, cowering fear.  Had the species continued to lurch down the road of deception and self-deception without self-correction, it would have surely succumbed to real world dangers.


The bottled-up unconscious wishes emerged as symptoms—symptoms that would be humanities best hope for recovering the mental world the species was trying to hide.

Internal and external dangers cause people to bottle up unconscious wishes, and the wishes must emerge as symptoms.  To naïve people, obsessional thoughts, inappropriate feelings, self-defeating behavior, or psychosomatic pain might have seemed useless craziness (or a sign of divinity).  But mental suffering and symptoms would turn out to be humanity’s best hope for recovering its sanity, portals into a mental world the species was trying to push into the shadows, windows through which we could observe or even touch our underworld reality. 


We arrive, in my fable, at a cultural moment when self-deception was getting out of hand, members were doing harmful things they hadn’t intended, confusing themselves and each other, and beginning, at the same time, to connect the dots between their confusion and their exhaustion.  Humanist culture began in the realization that careful observation and reflection was essential to clarify and manage confusing and increasingly complex mental phenomena.  


The First Introspection, the beginning of humanistic culture, was a giant step beyond an impulse-ridden life; the instinct for self-knowledge was born.

The first realization of this kind, the First Introspection, would have been a critical moment in the development of the human mind.  Yet introspection, like every other human ability, must have had an evolutionary history, perhaps having taken an early rudimentary form in our animal ancestors when they “checked back” on an initial perception (a tiger, for example, might hear a snapping twig, look toward the sound, take two steps, and look again).  When humans learned to “check back” on their internal motives and reactions, they had taken a giant step beyond an impulse-ridden life.  The instinct for self-knowledge was born.


From Fable to History

“To be curious about that which is not my concern while I am still ignorant about my own self- would be ridiculous.” Socrates

Now we leave my just-so story and step onto the more solid ground of the historical Mediterranean shores.  Nowhere in the ancient world was self-reflection more highly esteemed than in Greece.  The Hellenic Greeks prized paideia, the striving for knowledge of both the inner and outer worlds; some unknown Hellene consecrated this communal value by inscribing “know thyself” on the wall of the temple of Apollo at Delphi.  And Socrates wrote, “To be curious about that which is not my concern while I am still ignorant about my own self would be ridiculous.”  To demonstrate, over and over again, that people could think they knew something when they really didn’t (that is, that people easily fooled themselves), was perhaps the whole project of Plato’s dialogues, the whole purpose of Socrates’ gadfly grilling of his fellow Athenians. In this questioning, searching atmosphere, philosophical schools flourished, providing intellectual venues for men, and occasionally women, to gather for study and self-examination.  


“Better to be on a runaway horse than to be a woman who does not reflect.” Theano

The Greeks breathed this atmosphere into their Italian colonies.  Across the Aegean Sea, in the city of Crotona, the Pythagorean school applied the Greek ideals of harmony, balance, order, and moderation to the inner life.   Theano, first a student, later the wife of Pythagorus, wrote, “Better to be on a runaway horse than to be a woman who does not reflect.”   She viewed the home as a microcosm of the state and believed women had a greater responsibility for creating the harmonious domestic conditions in which children could develop thoughtful and temperate minds. Self-reflection, she argued, helped women create this climate.  


Eastern civilizations didn’t explicitly value self-knowledge, but they grasped the necessity of surrender, of opening one’s self to experiences beyond rational control.

Eastern civilizations, by contrast, didn’t explicitly value self-knowledge in the sense of discovering one’s personal mysteries, one’s habits of self-deception and one’s hidden history.  But Eastern thinkers, better than the Greeks, grasped the necessity of surrender, of opening one’s self to experiences beyond rational control to deepen and intensify life.  The concept of surrender—so important in psychotherapy--eventually found its way into both Greek thought and Greek mystery religions, and from there into Christianity.    


Christianity helped establish the necessity of self-knowledge as a guiding ideal of western culture.

The early Christians, who sacralized the interior life, reinforced the western tradition of looking inward.  In the 5th century A.D., several centuries after the era of the church fathers, St. Augustine vividly described his transformation from a restless rake, snatching at hollow pleasures, to a contemplative man dedicated to self-reflection.  His work led to an interpersonal method of introspection—the Catholic Confession. Interiority also spellbound the religion’s mystics, like Catherine of Sienna, who advocated knowledge of one’s own soul, as a path to knowledge of God. Although the secular world derides Christianity—and it’s true, some Christian beliefs are self-blinding--the Judeo-Christian ethos helped establish self-knowledge and self-scrutiny as guiding ideals of western culture. 


The humanistic tradition, from the Renaissance on, venerated introspection and self-knowledge.

The Renaissance put the secular self once again on center stage.  The 14th century poet Petrarch, the Italian sonneteer whom we distinguish as the first humanist, elevated introspection to such a height that on one well-known occasion, he chastised himself for allowing the beautiful view from Mont Venteux to momentarily distract him from self-contemplation.  He said, “I should have learned from the Greeks that nothing is admirable but the soul.” In a similar spirit, two centuries later, the French writer Montaigne retired from his work as magistrate and, except for some diplomatic excursions, virtually locked himself in the tower of his country estate for ten years of self-reflection.  With fearless objectivity, Montaigne used what we now call free association and systematic self-observation to understand himself and to manage his irrational or distorted attitudes.   In his celebrated Essays, he almost single-handedly turned introspection into a valuable tool for the psychological science of his era.  “We go outside ourselves,” he wrote, “because we do not know what goes on inside.”  Even Montaigne’s contemporaries recognized his achievement; some consulted him for psychotherapeutic help.  Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes and Rousseau; Kant and Fichte; romantic poets like Byron; psychologically-minded philosophers like Schopenhaeur and Nietsche; Emerson and other Transcendentalists all—like Montaigne—pursued the humanistic vision of the self-reflective thinker.  


Freud, in a culmination of the humanist tradition, discovered how psychotherapy could systematically deepen self-knowledge.

Steeped in this tradition—the tradition of humanistic introspection and its veneration of self-knowledge--Freud penetrated to much deeper levels of the mind.  In The Interpretation of Dreams, one of the greatest achievements of human genius, he demonstrated the principles of self-censorship and described the strategies by which dreams communicated the hidden life of the personal unconscious.  On this magnificent foundation, Freud built what Nobel laureate neuroscientist Eric Kandel called “the most coherent and intellectual satisfying view of the mind . . .” and began to explain how a psychotherapeutic relationship could systematically deepen self-knowledge.


However, modern culture recoiled from Freud.  It tried to sanitize his discoveries, to soften and simplify his challenging ideas.  Society has tried, it seems, to suppress the timeless human instinct to know one’s self, and turned away from its latent humanistic love of the inner life.  But psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy wouldn’t go away; truth is stubborn and hardy.  Psychoanalysis still lives among us, in quiet, inconspicuous niches. And it remains the most reliable path to the deeper springs of the self.  


Present Threats to Self-Knowledge

Present culture distracts us from our inner lives. Even the mental health professions ignore the meaning behind symptoms.

As if 21st century society felt it hadn’t thoroughly subdued self-reflection, it unleashed a landslide of techno-detritus to bury it forever.  Now, we’re suffocating in information technology.  Facebook, Twitter, and the whole on-line world, the lengthening shadow of drones and Googleglass cyborgs have stripped away the rich face-to-face interactions which once so powerfully transformed us, for good and bad.  For thirty years, the tide of technology has consumed time and energy we might have used to deepen relationships with each other and ourselves.  But we capitulated to the cyberworld, perhaps because we can’t stand to be left out, or alone, or exposed to the danger of self-reflection. 


Even the mental health professions, which we expect to protect the public mind, have conspired in the great evasion; they too have become infatuated with the surface of life, seeking the source of mental pain in neurotransmitters and genes. They’ve helped replace self-understanding with psychiatric diagnoses (e.g. “I am BiPolar,” or “I am Attention Deficit Disordered”) and have acquiesced to the chemical assault on those diagnoses.  The mental health professions have agreed to ignore the meanings of mental symptoms, those windows to the soul I mentioned earlier, robbing society of reliable incentives to explore the interior world.   


However, no society can safely forget that self-awareness is indispensable to contact with reality.  Nor can it safely neglect, as ours seems to be doing, the need for contemplative repose.  In the satisfaction of our need to make sense of ourselves, there is no replacement for psychoanalytic psychotherapy.  To learn more, see Psychotherapy with Adults and My Approach