“Inventing the Individual”

An apt title considering my research topic although reading a book on the development of liberalism from Roman times isn’t quite what I envisaged when I started my doctorate. I also didn’t think it would take two days of Googling to find an article on the medical profession in the 18th century. However, I discovered a wonderful article titled “Medical Knowledge and the patronage system of 18th century England” by N. Jewson. It describes beautifully how physicians had their own theories about the body which emanated from the Greek Humours. They also had a rich benefactor who liked that theory which meant the physician protected the theory so as to protect their income. Other theories, even scientific ones, were ferociously attacked meaning the period of Enlightenment took some time before creating today’s modern medical profession. It sounded familiar: Think about coaching, psychology and neuroscience. There’s a quote from the philosopher, Patricia Churchland, (2002) saying “Questions about self-representation are steadily shifting into the province of the brain and cognitive sciences” and a few colleagues feel that in ten years, psychology as we know it will no longer be taught.

So my defence has begun, or rather, the argument for my research question has begun which is why I am reading such diverse texts. “Inventing the individual” cites a 19th century author, Fustel de Coulanges, who wrote an influential book because he insisted on understanding from first principles how the Romans viewed life: “If we desire to understand antiquity, our first rule should be to support ourselves upon the evidence that comes from the ancients”. This is akin to me understanding the Self from the Neuroscience rather than the Social Sciences perspective. The questions I am now looking at to bring together my argument are: Why neuroscience? What models of the Self are there? How scientifically sound are they? What is happening in coaching at the moment regarding neuroscience? What other topics have I considered and why am I not choosing those? What is there in the neuroscience literature that indicates that this topic is worth researching? Why is the Self important to understand?

Also I suddenly understand the element in the research proposal about my Ontological and Epistemological view point. At heart, I am curious about, and love understanding, why things work and do what they do or don’t do what they could do. I am not satisfied until I can get that explanation as solid as possible, which for me means science. I am comfortable that science is always unfolding to deeper levels so things change but it’s from solid science, we just know a bit more. I like Explanatory models rather than Descriptive ones although at times descriptive is the best we have and that’s a start. They can also be insightful and for a lot of people they appear rational which is why they are often popular. Sometimes science can be counter-intuitive which is harder for people to accept.

My questions have led to some interesting reading such as Dan Siegel’s ‘Pocket Guide to Interpersonal neurobiology – An integrative handbook of the mind’. (Although I think he must wear baggy trousers as it would need a large pocket.) I am also looking forward to his new book: ‘Mind’. Any book that connects people’s behaviour and quantum physics is a must read for me! Regarding neuroscience and the self, a lot of it seems to be around self-awareness, self-perception and self-regulation. This video demonstrates this and provokes thoughts about what is ‘real’: The neuroscience of self: how the brain creates ‘me’. The book, ‘Understanding the self’ edited by Richard Stevens comes from a similar angle albeit from a psychology viewpoint. In psychology there also appear to be numerous models of the self and I have started a similar search within the neuroscience arena with respect to a central integrator or self. Initially, the search yielded many articles containing extremely complicated words. I can see the need for a lot of slow reading using Google to find out what the long words mean. My other trick is to think, ‘that’s just a part of the brain or a technique and I don’t need to know more than that at this stage’.

To back up why I want to dive into the neuroscience literature, and study the self differently, I have been exploring how innovative researchers are becoming. Two TedTalks are great examples of this. The first is about how material used in babies’ nappy can be used to smoothly expand brain tissue rather than having to create even better microscopes. The second one is about using computer hackers to help stop the spread of malaria (at 12mins 21sec). Both are examples of a totally different way of coming at a problem with different thinking. Also they have created a semantic map of the brain (and video article) with an interactive brain map you can play with – have fun.

In the last month I have really enjoyed connecting to others who are going through a similar journey of finding out how different the academic world is. It’s an interesting mix of being very adult and needing to justify what you say with having everything questioned which feels at times as if that’s the only point – to ask questions whether they are useful or not. It has made me realise that an engineering degree doesn’t give the best grounding for arguing cases as you don’t do a lot of that in an engineering degree (at least not when I did it). However once we get to the research part then it will be valuable experience. I am presenting to our group in September so lots to read and arguments to construct and justify.

PS: Sorry to lengthen this blog but I have just read this and felt you’d like to know about it – it was an eye-opener to me. I knew anger and heart attacks were linked but was not sure why. In the book, ‘Understanding the self’, it says that when you are hostile, you release adrenaline and cortisol which releases fuel (fatty acids) from your body, ready for action. But in today’s society often there is no physical exertion so these fatty acids float around in your blood and form deposits on the blood vessels thus restricting the circulation system. Coupled with the associated increase in blood pressure, it is a lethal combination.