Mindfulness: Observing Without Questioning

The story of discovery goes something like this: the inventor investigates what he knows (the properties of stapholycocci) and uncovers something else (penicillin), which changes the world. The scientific method is one hallmark of the modern era, but sometimes we put too much faith in it. The amateur scientist believes that he knows what he is looking for and with evidence he can confirm his hunch. The sagacious scientist, in contrast, frequently abandons his inklings and partialities, knowing that after a certain point observation and luck will be his closest allies.  


An unfortunate aspect of our mental life is how unscientific it is. When we have an intuition – an idea about how the world works and how we behave in it – we act like the amateur scientist; we don’t investigate opposing ideas but automatically seek out confirming evidence. We’re elaborate story weavers, and we selfishly cast ourselves as the infallible protagonist who lives in a world of idiots. To paraphrase the satirical cartoonist Tim Krieder, we spend most of our mental lives winning imaginary arguments that are never actually going to take place. In other words, we exist in an epistemic matrix with a willful prescription to the blue pill.

Here’s the other problem: introspection doesn’t offer an escape. In fact, we have little access to the cognitive processes that underpin our behaviors and decisions. Consider the following study. Researcher presented participants with eight by ten inch photographs of different women’s faces and asked them (heterosexual men in this instance) to rank the attractiveness of each photo. Unbeknownst to the men, in half the photos the eyes of the women were dilated. It was a small alteration that turned out to have a sizeable effect. The men consistently ranked the women with dilated eyes as more attractive, and when the researchers asked them to explain their decisions, none of them mentioned the enlarged pupils. Instead, they simply felt more attracted to some photos for reasons outside their conscious awareness. 

If motivational and cognitive barriers hinder self-knowledge, then are we trapped in this epistemic matrix? Not exactly. Despite limitations, humans often correct inaccurate beliefs and improve judgment. The question is if there are strategies to think more like the sagacious scientist and avoid the self-validating story telling.   

This brings me to a recently published paper by Erika N. Carlson, a PhD candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. Carlson proposes that mindfulness, defined as “paying attention to one’s current experience in a nonevaluative way,” may provide an effective means for acquiring self-knowledge. The “mindful” individual, as opposed to his introspective peer, does not analyze or interpret nor does he ask questions that lend themselves to intricate narratives that confirm his intuitions. As Carlson puts it, “[mindfulness] involves noticing thoughts and emotions as they arise without elaboration or rumination. This kind of detached observation… allows people to experience fairly aversive thoughts and emotions as temporary events rather than experiences that require a response or an explanation.”

How can we achieve mindfulness? Carlson mentions two strategies that both stress observation over questioning and introspection. The first is nonevalution observation, which encourages people to consider information even if it threatens the ego. Carlson cites a study that primed participants with morbid thoughts about their death. The researchers noted that the typical response to “mortality salience” is to hunker down, bolster self-esteem, and defend your worldview. However, individuals who scored higher on tests of mindfulness “defended their worldviews less, thought about death longer, and suppressed negative thoughts about death less.” An observant ego, in sum, is a healthy ego.  

Second, we should pay attention to all the available information in a given moment (i.e., all thoughts, feelings, and behaviors). If this sounds obvious consider that compared to untrained individuals, people with mindfulness training preform better on conflict monitoring tasks, orientation tasks, standardized tests and working memory tasks.* Like impartial spectators, they consider all of the facts and avoid jumping to conclusions.

And this brings me back to the scientific method. The amateur scientist begins by asking a question and looking for evidence. Yet Alexander Fleming showed us that observation might be the best starting point. We can learn from this. Our introspecting narrative-weaving mind is literally self-serving: one half agrees to ask all the questions, but in return the other half provides the desired answers. This is the epistemic matrix in action, and it thrives on questions. Despite this reality I’m optimistic about our frontal lobes. If Carlson is correct, mindfulness offers a way out. We simply need to observe ourselves, free of judgment, and question less.  

There is an oddity running throughout all of this, eloquently stated by Jason Chin and two colleagues in a chapter from The Handbook of Self-Knowledge. 

In a world filled with mysteries, one might hope to take solace in there being at least one thing we can know with certainty, namely, ourselves. While the privileged knowledge of the existence of our own experience may well represent a critical foundation for constructing an understanding of reality, alas, even this apparent epistemological stronghold has its weakness.

If this sounds pessimistic, the good news is that self-knowledge is an emerging domain in cognitive science. Last June, editors Simine Vazire and Timothy Wilson published The Handbook of Self-Knowledge, a collection of chapters on the subject. In it, the two psychologists observe that self-knowledge is not a cohesive area of research even though many psychologists are studying it. Vazire and Wilson encourage more domains of psychology and neuroscience to communicate with each other in order to “define a new interdisciplinary area in psychology.”

I find it odd that this domain does not exist given the sine qua non topic of psychology is the self. Moreover, ever since the Greeks carved in stone at Delphi that the unexamined life is not worth living some 2,500 years ago, the role of self-knowledge has been central to Western thought. Alas, modern psychology appears late to the game. However, we should welcome the empirical data that emerges out of this new area of research. Hopefully with more information, and a bit of observation, we can shake our addiction to the blue pill and step outside the epistemic matrix. 

 

Image via Shuttershock/Mark William Penny

*Their minds also wanders less – an important trait given that a wandering mind is usually an unhappy one, as Matthew Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert found in a study published in Science a few years ago.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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