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”.This is exactly how our subpersonalities work with other agents to maintain status quo in our lives (I want to slim down but will do it tomorrow, I want to get the house repaired but will do it once I have money by which the money would have got more damaged or instant gratification based spending and running credit card debts).
We can reprogram subpersonaliites and create new special-purpose subpersonalities based on what we are trying to achieve. As a matter of fact I successfully created a special purpose early warning subpersonality named “P3 -Orion” based after an early warning surveillance aircraft system. This subpersonality keeps me out of trouble and also flags impending dangers giving me sort of “spidey sense“.
All the intra-conflict and inter-conflicts between our subpersonalities are sent to the conscious mind to check if any change is required. When one experiences some paradox or push/pull in our conscious mind, it is the unconscious mind knocking at our door to take some action. Conflict is handled by our unconscious mind in a unique manner which is based on a new understanding of brain. After making multiple attempts to inform the conscious mind through body signals (intuition), the unconscious mind as a whole quits and reduces the signal intensity. It takes it as a given that either the conflict state is satisfactory to the unified self or the unified self is incapable of resolving the conflict.
Learning to resolve the conflicts in the core team and then getting it help from other well-meaning teams can help us change status quo easily and effortlessly. Brute forcing the stronger personalities is one way, strengthening the weaker subpersonalities is another way, but co-opting the strong personalities is an even better way. All horses will drive the cart in a single direction making the journey more exciting.
Till now, we discussed how subpersonalities are separately functioning parts of our psyche and mind as well as conflict and cooperation are built into the system. Building on this further, I will show you how to resolve conflicts between subpersonalities or convert conflict to cooperation on demand.
Everything happening in our life is creating by our unconscious mind. If we see something in our life that we do not like, it is created by our unconscious mind. The unconscious mind is made of millions of sub-personalities that do the actual work. These subpersonalities carry out a lot of instinctive and intuitive functions. Instinctive functions can be maintaining our heart rate, breathing pattern, protecting us from being eaten by predators, maintaining metabolism and regulation. Intuitive functions operate acquired skills like giving a well framed presentation, negotiating with others, learning finance skills etc. As a reminder, please note that instinctive skills are inherited while intuitive skills are acquired over a life span. At times, we can use instinctive and intuitive programs to create hybrid subpersonalities, but, more on that later.
Our subpersonalities carry out a large number of functions such as perception, prediction, contingency planning, sensory intake,reflex action, coordination, monitoring, emotional regulation, cue detection, integration, co-ordination, inference, judgement, choice, decision making, maintaining search drives, response modulation, running survival drives, running mating drives etc. It is a lot of work for subpersonalities and in-spite of conflicts between the various parts, the team of subpersonalities do a very good job at helping us survive and live life. Everything that happens in our life is the result of sub-personalities working as a team to find accordance’s in the environment (possibilities) and using our perception and action loops to maintain our belief states or achieve goals.
Sub-personalities work together to create outcomes for us and working 24 X 7 creating outcomes for us. Our subpersonaliites are solver units who can be very inventive, if we know how to activate them or task them for optimal search. They can find millions or trillions of way to achieve and maintain belief states. The problem is that they are habituated to find same ole same ole pathways which keep repeating our repetitive belief states and goals. We can diffuse/weaken the defective programming by doing Sensate Processes, we can reprogram them by running full Outcomes Process and we can create brand new programs by using the special purpose subpersonaliites process.
To understand the complexity of this function, these subpersonalities are like software programs built on anatomically separate brain units broadly categorized under three main segments such as brain stem, mid-brain and neo-cortex. In terms of computer analogy, image various operating hardware built on AMD, NVIDIA or Intel Microprocessors. And different operating systems like Windows, MAC, Unix. Now imagine programming languages COBOL, C, C++, Java, Pascal, Perl, PHP. Getting anatomically different brain parts to work together while running different programming languages (perception, action, inference, judgement, balance etc) is no easy task. This is why our brain requires the 60-100 billion neurons to operate a very sophisticated analog and digital computing system with robotics and vision in our mind to creative predictive distributions (best case, probable case, worst case) at every step collapsing probabilities into experienced realities. In layman terms, our brain and mind creates our future from inside out predicting what is likely to happen, narrowing it down to what we expect to happen and then making us take intuitive and unconscious perception searches combined with action sequences to maintain our expectations.
Subpersonalities have a task of maintaining belief states (a set of possible worlds) and use unconscious search to maintain the belief states driven by unconscious habit patterns.
Unconscious Search (US) uses three sequential and/or parallel processes to maintaining belief states i.e goal formulation, problem formulation (search), solution implementation (reflex action). Goal formulation may be intuitive (wishful thinking) or structured, problem formulation (search) may be offline (sleeping or imagining) or online and solution implementation may be completely based on reflex actions or insight based thoughtful actions. As discussed elsewhere, I realized when I was 27 that prayer is a unique form of goal formulation which triggers the unconscious search. Alright, back to how our subpersonalities act.
The process of looking for a sequence of actions that reaches the goal is called search. A search algorithm takes a problem as input and returns a solution in the form of an action sequence. Once a solution is found, the actions it recommends can be carried out. This is called the execution phase. Thus, we have a simple “formulate, search, execute” design for the agent. After formulating a goal and a problem to solve, the agent calls a search procedure to solve it.
A solution to a problem is an action sequence or sequences that leads from the initial state (current state) to the future state. Solution quality is measured by the path cost function. All paths are not created equal and so, the optimal solution has the lowest path cost among all solutions. High stress pathways have a high cost of achieving outcomes. Pathways where we try and fail also have a high cost.
Assuming that the brain has formulated goals, we now need to solve them. A solution is an action sequence, so search algorithms work by considering various possible action sequences i.e I will do this and then do this etc.
Our subpersonalities operate on different brain parts, There are so many parts working together in the service of our goals that it is easy to forget that each part has a different language, some parts are stronger and some have language that most of us do not understand. The right brain and sub-cortical processes are the oldest, most sophisticated and powerful but operate in the mostly unconsciously state. If we want to get the whole team to work together consciously, we need to get their inputs in the conscious work space and resolve conflicts, reprogram the sparring parts and build cooperation between the teams.
To create harmony between all the parts and sub-personalities we need to keep the intellectual and intuitive awareness on the same page. In subpersonality dialogue and sub-personality negotiation, we will learn to keep outputs of multiple languages and brain parts within a single workspace. Then, we will use sensate processes to deprogram/reprogram faulty programs that run in the background like background computer processes than run behind the simple GUI of our computers.
Like skilled negotiators, we also need dashboards, monitoring resources to keep things in check when assigning new goals for these subpersonaliites. Specifically, to keep them on track, we need to monitor some variables to asses, maintain and sustain harmony amongst the various parts.
Recent EEG research has also shown that the brainwave patterns of the world’s top performers and producers are distinct from other normative brains (average brains). There is a special brainwave pattern termed “The Awakened-mind Pattern” most often seen in advanced mediators, artists, CEOs, researchers, intuitive, creatives. “The Awakened Mind” brainwave pattern of lucid awareness, creative flow and peak performance was mapped on the first EEG machine invented in 1976 by English biophysicist and Zen master C. Maxwell Cade. I posit in another article that Gautam Buddha (Sidharta) achieved the “Awakenedmind” pattern based on intense meditation.
These high achievers tap their unconscious intelligence for solutions to problems at hand and use the brain asymmetry to their advantage while still using the full power of their brain and mind. This advanced skill creates a strong competitive edge for these positive anomalies across the population segment. These people use many methods to lead all their own parts to create successful internal teams. Then, they can create powerful external teams consisting of other people. These people have super-intelligence and become real high achievers in the world.
In the next post, I will highlight how to use Sensate Processes to deprogram sub-optimal subpersonalities and use advanced processes to create new and special purpose subpersonalities.