Subpersonalities in Mind – Who’s Calling the Shots ?
What are sub-personalities, how they work together to create a unified mind ? How can we reprogram them to take better decisions or enjoy new/novel experiences ?
Have you ever experienced a conflict in your mind about choosing a direction, taking a decision or wanting to be with a person or not ? You may have also experienced a conflict between wanting to do something now or later (timing conflict). These dichotomous feelings are a result of conflicting parts trying to pull us in different directions as horses try to pull a cart in different directions. Sometimes, the stronger part will win and at other times, it will lead to a deadlock. In rare cases, the weaker part will grow in strength over time and win over the transient stronger parts.
InPixar’s movie “Inside Out’, the characters of the movies are agents/parts inside the head of an 11 year old girl named Riley. Riley’s world turns upside down creating an emotional upheaval when her parents move to San Fransisco. Here five major emotions or subpersonalities joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust are struggling and jostling with each other to create a unified experience for Riley. Joy is the main character trying to win over other sub-personalities. In the movie, there is a central control room with a calibration control board/joystick that the five major emotions try to control while trying to become the dominant emotion. The movie depicts exactly what happens inside our unconscious mind.
The multiple nature of our mind a.k.a multiplicity of the mind will make us rethink the concept of a single self and help us become more aware when we experience conflict in our subpersonalities. A unified sense of self or monomind is an illusion. What we call the self or “I’ is a divided mind built of hundreds and possibly, millions of subpersonalities. Our fragmented mind is not a result of mental disorders but is natural and normative functioning of our mind. While the hardware of brain parts evolved over time, most of the soft programming is completed by the time we are 5-6 years of age based on our early life experiences. Some of these parts may be running obsolete programs, require reprogramming while other parts may require complete retirement.
Acknowledging the multiplicity of mind enables us to heal or re-frame exiled, rogue, sub-optimal and disagreeing parts while realizing that we may not be defective on an aggregate level or what we feel in the moment is just a part that is experiencing the experience. It is a perfectly normal process of living as a human being and being aware of the fragmented multiplicity also allows us to reprogram/strengthen/weaken or calibrate the sub-optimally functioning parts.
There are many psychological practices that use subpersonality theory as the basis of therapy. Internal Family Systems Model (IFS) is one such integrative approach to individual psychotherapy developed by Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s. It combines systems thinking with the view that the mind is made up of relatively discrete subpersonalities each with its own viewpoint and qualities. I tend to agree to with the IFS fundamental philosophy, but, disagree with how IFS classifies these subpersonalities into exiles, managers and firefighters which is over-simplistic and insufficient way of understanding parts.
Our subpersonalities work independently, but, interact in a common workspace called the conscious mind. This common workspace allows us to bring conflicting or sparring parts together and resolve their conflicts. Unfortunately, most of us do not know how to resolve conflict and disagreements among the subpersonalities even if consciously become aware of the conflict. Most of us continue to live with conflicted subpersonalities for most part of our lives.
As I will highlight below, conflicted subpersonalities can lead to overall sub-optimal performance on a unit or aggregate level for us as these subpersonalities consume energy and computational resources. One subpersonality trying to get you to find your perfect partner or perfect partner may be screaming for more computational resources, but resources may have been allocated to subpersonalities that may be working against your primary goal itself creating self-sabotage. Freeing up computational resources from obsolete programs and re-allocating the resources to optimal subpersonalities can be a liberating experience.
Learning how to work with these parts may be even more important when trying to venture into new experiences, uncharted territory, seeking new types of people and events in our lives. We cannot experience the “newness” or “novel experiences”, if our subpersonalities are working on old programs trying to achieve familiar results for us.
Subpersonalities and Emergence of Human experience and Consciousness
The evolution of nervous systems dates back to the first development of nervous systems in animals (or metazoans) where nerve nets developed in a modular form, building more units on top of the previous units, as we progressed adaptively as a human race.
“Functional self-presentations that navigate particular psychosocial situations” ~ Ken Wilber
Combining the functioning of neural nets and emergent mind, it is plausible that intelligence emerged from non-intelligent components. Mind is made of simple units called agents who do simple things. These agents form units, and units form communities. It is through the interaction of these parts that true intelligence emerges. It is also through the interaction of these parts that we get a sense of self and experience the world.
Based on extensive research around concepts such as massive brain modularity, parallel distributed processing (PCP) and the neural Reuse model, I posit that minds are made of parts that are not smart, but their interaction makes us smarter. In essence, the whole is more the sum of its parts. An individual human mind is thus a society of subpersonalities in which conflict and cooperation is built in. The push and pull of conflict and cooperation creates a counter-balanced yet stable system called human experience. By changing the nuanced balance of system wide conflicts and cooperative actions, we can change our human experience and the results we get in our life.
While our unconscious mind is made of millions of subpersonalities, the conscious mind is also a special purpose subpersonality which works with the “other than the conscious minds” to provide a common workspace for sparring, competing, teamed up subpersonalities. The conscious mind also allows us to diagnose, re-program, program old and new subpersonalities. Conscious mind is our keyboard and mouse that allows us to interact with the background processing and operating system of our unconscious mind.
In a later post, I will show how most of these subpersonalities are encapsulated i.e. it is consciously not possible to decipher how they work but there are work arounds that can help. In addition, each subpersonality is a special purpose unit but can be repurposed for other tasks by changing the inputs to the subpersonality. More on that later.
“Subpersonalities are states of mind, which have a common pattern of activity in time. Those specialised “I” have a particular way of independent processing of information and achieving goals. Every person has many such codependent and at the same time individual processes, which exist in time, with a feeling of continuity which creates the experience of the mind.” (Siegel, 1999, pp 231).
Purpose Driven SubPersonalities
These subpersonalities are structured in a nested format as well as hierarchically clustered on top of each other as organizations are structured. While most sub-personalities are doing specific tasks, they are cortically, neutrally and functionally nearest neighbors of other subpersonalities which may be competing or co-operating with each other. They can be close in proximity but distant in function.
Some subpersonalities may be hierarchically structured under bigger more powerful subpersonality units. They work together in a sophisticated way to manage perceptions, actions, sensory inputs, motor skills, predictive functions, monitoring and regulating our beliefs and much more. I posit that human mind is a super-subpersonality unit that combines all of all our subpersonalities. I will also propose that the global mind is a larger subpersonality unit which is formed of individual human subpersonality units.
Subpersonalities are similar to software programs that execute functions, much like a computer processor executing functions which are taking input, sometimes from other subpersonality output, processing it and converting it to an output. Based on recent advances in computational neuroscience, meta-heuristics and artificial intelligence, I propose that subpersonalities are optimizing an objective function using various optimization techniques and they are attempting to achieve outcomes and generate experiences for us based on instinctive and intuitive computer like programs. Instinctive programs are inherited, but intuitive programs are acquired during our lifespan based on our experiences.
“Subpersonalities are optimizing an objective function using various optimization techniques and they are attempting to achieve outcomes and generate experiences for us based on instinctive and intuitive computer like programs’
We can change the intuitive programs using various methods using the common workspace a.k.a conscious mind changing the objective function of the subpersonalities. To understand the basics of optimization, please read the lifeguard example in the article “Writing Effective Problem Statements for Innovation“. An objective function may be to find your perfect partner, to get a salary raise, to get a new job or even to arrive at an agreement with someone on a pre-defined topic.
Basis the above, I define “Subpersonalities are intelligent agents in our mind with specific purpose assigned to them or taken on by them in fulfillment of an objective function by way of replicating familiar experiences. These subpersonalities use search and planning sequences to create a reality in the service of our established beliefs. These agents may be running on obsolete, sub-optimal individual or collective programs and also act as skill repertoires using our perceptions and actions. They are not always exiled parts or parts that are trying to harm us and instead they are working with other subpersonalities to help us survive and evolve in our immediate environment“
As conflict and cooperation is built into the functioning of these subpersonalities similar to social systems and communities, we have to become aware of when the conflict surfaces in our conscious mind. Conflict is trying to tell us something and can enable us to heal or align sparring parts. Sometimes, simple conflict resolution works to help us achieve therapeutic and performance goals. At other times, we may need a significant re-programming of older programs. Yet, in rare cases, we may need to create brand new programs altogether.
“The mind, with its billions of neurons, is like a community made from smaller communities. The communities at the highest level (right under the level of wholeness) are something I like to call subpersonalities or inner voices… They are the competing aspects of ourselves, which try to govern the whole” ~ Douglas Hofstadter .
The famed Marvin Minsky, also known as the grandfather of artificial intelligence, used an example of a child playing with blocks. He proposed a theory that a child’s mind is made up of a host of smaller minds called agents. One of these agents can be called “Builder” which is nothing but a special purpose subpersonality which can project manage other small tasks till the task is complete.
Builder agent has to seek help from other agents “Begin”, “Add” and “End”.
The “Add” agent needs further help from other agents named “Find”, “See”, “Grasp”, “Move”, “Put”, “Release”. It is clear in this example that subpersonalities may be hierarchically as well as structured in peer to peer teams. Let us use a scenario where one of the team members is weak, incompetent or not fully onboard with the outcome of building a block. Now, the team is conflicted and the parts are conflicted.
Let us also imagine there is another super-agent named “Wrecker” who likes to wreck whatever it’s arch enemy “Builder’ is building. “Wrecker” also has a team of “agents” named “Find Destructive Opportunities “, “Act on Searched Opportunities”, “Team up with Adversaries”, “De-stabilize the Opponent”. Let us also assume that the team is motivated, very close to each other and has no conflicts.Then, there is a third team named “Lazy One” which can introduce boredom, decrease motivation and create attentional distraction. Let us also assume this team to be close to each other similar to the Wrecker team. Imagine what would happen if “Wrecker’ and “Lazy One” team together. The ganged up team will always win over the “Builder Team”.