Knowing Thyselving: A novel Relational Frame Theory approach to the self and perspective-taking

I am really gratified to introduce Dr. Paul Guinther, PhD, a Clinical Psychologist and Freelance behavioral science researcher in Portland, Oregon (USA). Paul has worked closely with former president of the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI), Michael Dougher, and continues to be one of the most innovative and creative forces within Relational Frame Theory and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, conducting research (see links embedded in the blog) on complex topics such as false memories and perspective-taking. Enjoy this, quite simply, fascinating and remarkable blog on experimental approaches to understanding the ‘self’! – Dr. Ian Tyndall, University of Chichester, UK

Knowing Thyselving

Paul Guinther, Ph.D

An ancient Egyptian proverb inscribed circa 1400 BCE on the External Temple of Luxor informs the neophyte: “The body is the house of god.” Those visiting the Inner Temple are privileged to more advanced knowledge through the inscription: “Man, know thyself, and you are going to know the gods.” If this is indeed true, and knowing the gods is indeed a desirable outcome, how might we know ourselves? How might we help others know themselves? Many answers to these questions have been developed over the ages through various religious, philosophical, and personal reflections; such matters are open to interpretation. Modern technological and scientific developments afford new routes to self-knowledge, often suggesting an equation of the self with physical brain activity (“Look! There I am on the fMRI!”). Similarly, as described in early behavior analytic literature (e.g., Pliskoff & Goldiamond, 1966; Reynolds, 1966; Shimp, 1982), an operant repertoire of “knowing thyself” involves awareness of the body, in the sense of being able to report one’s own behavior (see also Skinner, 1974). For example, Lattal (1975) taught pigeons to peck at different keys depending on their prior behavior. The pigeons’ subsequent knowledge of god was not assessed. While behavior analytic research in this vein can be considered a major scientific advancement in understanding how to exert contextual influence over self-awareness, such self-responding affords some familiarity with the house of god, without affording much insight into the nature of its ostensible owners, residents, and visitors.

To elaborate, given behavior is always in flux (i.e., the divergent perceiving, remembering, thinking, feeling, doing etc. of the body), a problem arises as to how we might account for the apparent continuity of the self across time. Are you the same person you were when you were a child? If a person is sad, are they the same person when they are happy? If you are a behavior analyst, who are you when you stop analyzing behavior? Is a pigeon its reported behavior, or the reporter of that behavior, or the reporter of the reporting, ad infinitum? Such paradoxical dilemmas are played out in Lewis Carrol’s fictional Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which a frustrated pigeon surmises that the titular Alice must be a serpent, or at least might as well be a serpent, reasoning that both Alice and serpents eat eggs. While we might applaud the pigeon’s functional definition of serpents (perhaps she was trained by Skinner or Lattal), there seems to be something off about equating an individual with their bodily activity. Lewis Carroll (or rather Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) further plays with the theme of mistaken identity when a miniaturized Alice struggles to identify herself following her physical transformation to three inches in height:

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I— I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’

‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’

‘I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.

‘I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, ‘for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’

‘It isn’t,’ said the Caterpillar.

‘Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,’ said Alice; ‘but when you have to turn into a chrysalis — you will some day, you know — and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?’

‘Not a bit,’ said the Caterpillar.

‘Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,’ said Alice; ‘all I know is, it would feel very queer to me.’

‘You!’ said the Caterpillar contemptuously. ‘Who are you?’

The contemptuous caterpillar would appear unphased at the prospect of metamorphosis. We might wonder if this is the case because it is the essential nature of caterpillars to be comfortable with transition, or perhaps the “he” who is currently a caterpillar will not exist to have feelings about being a butterfly eventually, or perhaps some “he” who is neither a caterpillar nor a butterfly, but someone else altogether, won’t mind experiencing metamorphosis. In the midst of this ambiguity (or is it coherent?), the caterpillar advises Alice: “Keep your temper.”

A few puffs of the hookah later, the caterpillar inquires into Alice’s claims to have changed, and she explains that her recitation of poetry no longer matches the material she had previously memorized. Seeking demonstration, the caterpillar instructs Alice to repeat the popular poem You are Old, Father William. Agreeing to do so, Alice proceeds to cite (but not recite) a poem about transitioning from youth to old age, but it is deemed by the caterpillar to be “wrong from beginning to end.” It is as if Alice’s learning history has been supplanted by another, yet she retains awareness that her memory, or rather her remembering behavior, is false (see Guinther & Dougher, 2010; Guinther & Dougher, 2014). That is, Alice accurately predicts her false recall. Being able to recall one’s own prior experiences after a delay is something of an extension of the aforementioned self-responding pigeon version of self-knowledge. However, the autobiographical storytelling of verbally competent humans can, one hopes, be more interesting than the pecking of keys.

Such matters have been researched by behavior analysts under the “do-report correspondence” paradigm (e.g., de Freitas Riberio, 1989; Risley & Hart, 1968). When training do-report correspondence, reinforcement is delivered for making accurate retrospective reports of the self’s past behavior. That is, to answer a question such as “What did you have for breakfast this morning?” one must look backward in time to identify one’s own prior behavior, being sure not to confuse the behavior of the self with the behavior of another (e.g., “I ate a very small cake for breakfast, whereas you ate a mushroom omelet.”). Conversely, under the report-do correspondence paradigm (e.g., Ward & Stare, 1990; Wilson Rusch, & Lee, 1992), reinforcement is contingent upon looking forward in time to make accurate prospective predictions of the self’s future behavior (e.g., stating “I will have tea later” and then later having tea). Apparently one can look backward to see and describe the self, and one can look forward to see and describe the self. The self must be very swift time traveler to reach these temporal positions faster than the head can swivel!

At any rate, to the extent that someone says something true about what one has done or what one will do (versus creating narratives about someone else’s behavior), we might be content to say such a person has some kind of self-knowledge. Then again, when equating the self with behavior, who presently tells the story of the self’s past behavior (which no longer exists) and presently tells the story of the self’s future behavior (which does not yet exist)? Surely the self must exist to have knowledge of the self, and in some sense one cannot have knowledge of a self who does not exist. Perhaps the self is ever-changing behavior in the present moment, if only change did not require time. Alice and the caterpillar sit some moments contemplating Alice’s temporal and spatial dilemmas…

The Caterpillar was the first to speak.

‘What size do you want to be?’ it asked.

‘Oh, I’m not particular as to size,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘only one doesn’t like changing so often, you know.’

‘I don’t know,’ said the Caterpillar.

Alice said nothing: she had never been so much contradicted in her life before, and she felt that she was losing her temper.

‘Are you content now?’ said the Caterpillar.

‘Well, I should like to be a little larger, sir, if you wouldn’t mind,’ said Alice: ‘three inches is such a wretched height to be.’

‘It is a very good height indeed!’ said the Caterpillar angrily, rearing itself upright as it spoke (it was exactly three inches high).

Apparently the caterpillar identifies with being three inches in height, and this is something of a sore spot. Keep your temper indeed! Here we see a transition from identifying with what the body does as a verb (i.e., self-reporting bodily actions) to identifying with what the body is as a noun (e.g., self-reporting the body itself). An experimental demonstration of contextual influence over bodily self-recognition was provided by Epstein, Lanza, and Skinner (1981). In this study, pigeons were trained to peck at marked spots on their bodies that the pigeons could see only through a looking glass. Sore spots for all! During more sophisticated linguistic acts of bodily identification, people can discern self-knowledge about the relevant object and describe characteristics such as: “I am [short, tall, thin, fat, young, old, male, female, dark-skinned, light-skinned, etc.].” Such publicly verifiable proclamations of bodily identity often will be reinforced by one’s verbal community (see Kanter, Parker, & Kohlenberg, 2001), albeit something akin to metonymy or synecdoche. That is, the body is seemingly a reasonable object of self-identification, or at least one tends to find the self in the body’s general vicinity.

Curiouser and curiouser, self-objectification opens the door for self-reification. As examples, socially constructed noun-things with which to identify include one’s occupation (“I am a hatter”), race (“I am a Caucasian rabbit”), and personality type (“I am a knave”). One can also take on roles, defined by and defining what one does (“I am a mallet; I am a ball”). One can even identify with their relations or circumstances (“I am a twin” or “I am late”). Similarly, abstraction from activity can lead to incorporeal objectification, as evident in nominalized identifications such as “I won at croquet, so I am a winner.” Sometimes objectification of the self can lead to an absolute, crystalized, and rigid self-concept, one free of temporality and impermanence (e.g., “I am and forever will be the one and only Queen of Hearts”), whereas the body is not really any more permanent than behavior. “I am young” will eventually give way to “I am old” and finally, from another perspective, “She is dead.” Still, we might allow that someone remains who they are even after bodily changes. For example, we might allow that someone is still the same person after losing a limb (though perhaps not after losing their head), or we might allow someone to continue identifying with being a hatter even when they are not presently making hats. That is, apparently one can be a transitory verb-event, a malleable noun-thing, or an absolute noun-thing, if not more. Who we are would seem to depend simply on what stories we’ve learned to tell about ourselves at any given moment. You could even say that you are your selving behavior.

One of the more fascinating mindfulness-based practices of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2012) involves deliberately cultivating particular senses of self, variously referred to as “self-as-context,” “self-as-perspective,” “self-as-awareness,” “observer self,” “knowing self,” or even “transcendent self” (Chin & Hayes, 2017; Fletcher & Hayes, 2005; Hayes, 1984, 1995; Hayes & Gregg, 2000; Moran, Almada, McHugh, 2018; Stewart & McHugh, 2012; Zettle, 2016). The idea here is that certain psychological benefits can sometimes follow from selectively identifying with the context surrounding our bodily, behavioral, and self-story content. Conversely, sometimes people may be reluctant to engage in otherwise adaptive behavior that would contradict their established self-narrative; being untruthful about one’s self may ruin one’s reputation, and ruining one’s self-image can be frightening if it is confused with ruining one’s self. Specifically, because people are generally motivated to make coherent sense  (Bordieri et al., 2016; Wray, Dougher, Hamilton, Guinther, 2012), people are predisposed to act in ways that correspond with their verbally constructed self-image. Saying what you mean and meaning what you say can sometimes be beneficial, but at other times maintaining a coherent narrative about the self through corresponding actions comes at the expense of engaging in alternative behavior that may be more adaptive. Consider the following expansion of reports regarding self-identification:

I am mad

(Reporting that the self is an abstract, reified, absolute, noun-thing concept. As such, the self would cease to exist if the self ceased to be mad, so self-preservation repertories would support the perpetuation of madness. As a complementary if paradoxical alternative, if this noun-thing self is deemed to be a bad thing, one may seek to punish or get rid of the self through some kind of self-destructive behavior.)

I am feeling mad…

(Reporting that the self is an ongoing but temporary verb-event; reporting that the self is a behavioral process of the body.)

I am thinking that I feel mad…

(Reporting that the self is more bodily behavior, in this case bodily behavior about other bodily behavior.)

I am having the thought that I feel mad…

(Reporting that the self grasps, contains, surrounds, carries, controls, hosts, or in some other fashion possesses thought or thinking content; reporting that the self is some kind of holding behavior or action. Alternatively, the self having thoughts can be construed to mean that the self at least partially consists of thoughts, making thoughts meronyms in a part-whole relation. Such constitutional framing suggests the whole self is a divisible object or event.)

I am aware of having the thought that I feel mad…

(Reporting that the self is some kind of container noun-thing; the self is consciousness containing content. For example, the phrase “beholding an experience in the window of awareness” suggests awareness is a sort of container, if only metaphorically. Alternatively, I am noticing/attending further suggests the self is more behavior.)

I am here now aware of having the thought that I feel mad…

(Reporting that the self is the spatiotemporal coordinate of the container and the content it is holding. In extension, reporting that the self is a spatiotemporal point or perspective, perhaps the place from which one looks through the window of awareness. Alternatively, reporting that the self is an ethereal spacetime container of material object and event content. To elaborate, one may construe that the body is a container of behavioral processes that are about the world and conceptual content, all nested within a spacetime self. One may attribute consciousness and perspective to the body, the body’s spacetime coordinate, or the body’s spacetime container; a disembodied perspectival consciousness would lack the equipment for reporting on itself. Being incorporeal, the perspectival self becomes something of a spiritual matter.)

Given people can respond to their own behavior (Hayes & Brownstein, 1986), behavioral shifts in identification from being content to being coordinate or container can have repercussions for subsequent behavior (e.g., Foody, Barnes-Holmes, Barnes-Holmes, & Luciano, 2013; Gil-Luciano, Ruiz, Valdivia-Salas, Suárez-Falcón; Luciano, Ruiz, Vizcaíno-Torres, Sánchez-Martín, Gutiérrez-Martínez, & López-López, 2011). For example, if we are angry then the coherent thing for the self to do is to act aggressively. In contrast, if we are noticing anger, thereby attending an event separate from the observer, we don’t necessarily have to do anything about anger as a target of observation. Likewise, irrationally lashing out in anger would confirm a self-image of being mad, whereas dispassionately observing ongoing experiences (e.g., noticing the thought that one feels mad) would confirm a self-image of being the perspective here now. To further illustrate, when Alice identifies with being a changing bodily object, and when she judges this to be a wretched thing to be, then she is dis-content and motivated to change herself as content (e.g., by ingesting size-altering toxic mushrooms). But if Alice shifted her identification to self-as-context by becoming the spatiotemporal coordinate here now, changing this constant perspective wouldn’t necessarily make much sense, and Alice may be more inclined to simply behold (be holding) the body at that coordinate without feeling inclined to act upon it. Similarly, if the caterpillar were to identify with being aware, this container of experience may be a suitable place to keep his temper.

‘But I’m not used to it!’ pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone. And she thought of herself, ‘I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended!’

‘You’ll get used to it in time,’ said the Caterpillar; and it put the hookah into its mouth and began smoking again.

This time Alice waited patiently until it chose to speak again. In a minute or two the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth and yawned once or twice, and shook itself. Then it got down off the mushroom, and crawled away in the grass, merely remarking as it went, ‘One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.’

‘One side of what? The other side of what?’ thought Alice to herself.

‘Of the mushroom,’ said the Caterpillar, just as if she had asked it aloud; and in another moment it was out of sight.

Empathic and mind-reading abilities involve taking another’s perspective, seeing things from their point of view, understanding their position, and “putting yourself in their shoes.” According to the relational triangulation framework (Guinther, 2017; Guinther, 2018) of Relational Frame Theory (Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001), sometimes this can involve traveling through spacetime to be the coordinate there then at the observing bodily position of another rather than being the coordinate here now at the observing bodily position of the self. That is, gaining perspective on one’s own thoughts and feelings may not be a far cry from taking perspective on someone else’s thoughts and feelings. For example, Guinther (2018) designed an operant analog of the Sally-Anne test for Theory of Mind (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985; Wimmer & Perner, 1983) that successfully shifted participants’ spatial perspectives, thereby exerting contextual influence over participants’ derived attributions of false/different beliefs in others. Our caterpillar friend may be doing something of the same to observe Alice’s thoughts from her perspective.

Under the relational triangulation framework (Guinther, 2017; Guinther, 2018), the term “self-as-context” is taken quite literally to mean identifying the perspectival self with contextual stimulus control over deictic behavior. That is, rather than being the body or behavior, the perspectival self is the spatiotemporal coordinate from which the body points at things. To give a very simple example of spatial perspective taking, suppose the self is seated across a table from another (i.e., the self and other are observed to have opposite spatial perspectives). Further suppose the self is noticing from the self’s position that a kettle is placed to the left of a cup upon the table. As such, if the self is an English speaker, the self may be inclined to think or report the deictic relation between these two targets by pointing at them with the phrase “The kettle is to the left of the cup.” That is, the deictic word “left” would be used because the pointing would be done relative to the spatial position of the observing self. If then asked to take the spatial perspective of the other (and supposing the other is also an English speaker), the self may be inclined to think or report the opposite other-relative deictic relation: “The kettle is to the right of the cup.” To engage in this probable behavior of the other (i.e., to think what they are thinking, or to report what they would report), the self would need to have a repertoire for adopting the other’s opposite spatial position such that it would exert contextual stimulus control over the self’s deictic pointing behavior. That is, taking the other’s spatial perspective could be achieved through adopting other-as-contextual control over the self’s pointing behavior. One side will make you point left, the other side will make you point right… Of the table, that is. Although two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time, a point in time or space can be a stimulus that simultaneously controls the behavior of more than one organism. As such, under certain conditions, self-as-context can be the same stimulus as other-as-context. When this happens, we are all one.

The body may be the house of the gods, but you are not in the house when you are holding a body in spacetime and consciousness. Another ancient Egyptian proverb advises: “Know the world in yourself. Never look for yourself in the world, for this would be to project your illusion.” In other words, the world is within you, and by logical extension you will not find yourself inside of yourself. That is, the body does not possess you, but rather you possess your body; you may even possess the body of another. The self-mythologizing body contains the entire pantheon of happiness, sadness, calmness, anger, pride, courage, cowardice, love, regret, wisdom, memory, imagination, and thought, but the transcendent self is not to befound in the house of these deities. For the transcendent self, the lights are on, but no body is home.