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On Introspection
March 30, 2024
by William P. Meyers

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I am an old man now. My memories of my past are selective, and could even be false. I have only a few memories from before I was six years old; most of them of at least mildly traumatic events. One memory relevant to an essay on introspection likely occurred when I was three years old. I was in the family car with my father and brother, but not with my mother and sister. We were on the way to Church, which in our case was Roman Catholic mass. My father (Captain Meyers) told me that I could just think things, rather than saying everything aloud. He said something, by way of explanation, like "just say it silently to yourself." And I did. And I thought it was cool, so I adopted the practice. My mother in particular did not like me to talk, unless answering a direct question. My father was an intelligence officer and spoke very little. I found it was safer not to share my thoughts. This lesson, the safety of keeping my mouth shut, was repeated many times in life. On the other hand, I also had examples of bad outcomes when I kept quiet. The particulars mattered.

Much later, my freshman year in college, I began to study Philosophy, starting with the Introductory Logic course. The following summer I started dating Lynn Eustis (now deceased), who was from a much wealthier, more sophisticated family than mine. Sometime that year Lynn signed up for a Transcendental Meditation class. She raved about it and I signed up for one. It was a con job. I was given a Mantra, a word, a name of a Hindu god or concept, to repeat while sitting twenty minutes, twice a day. It may have helped in some ways, lowering the stress of working 20 hours a week and trying to keep my grades up, but there was nothing transcendental or introspective about it. It was designed to keep people from thinking. Like we did not already have enough of that.

I continued with philosophy (and other subjects). Lynn and I broke up. I became interested in the possible benefits of hallucinogens, which were widely touted by Sixties types, though this was around 1975. I had smoked marijuana and seen how that changed my thoughts and consciousness. My friend Don, later Don M.D., gave me a hit of LSD and I took it. It really did blow my mind, but while the world seemed to dissolve, I do not think that it gave me any real insight into anything. It did make me consider the Hindu/Buddhist view that the world is an illusion. I was also reading a lot of Sufi material by Idries Shah [which strangely always forgot to mention that Sufism is an Islamic sect]. To top this off I took a course on the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

That year I also started interacting with the Pyramid Zen society, a tiny group that might have been called the Redneck Buddhists. They actually were more interested in introspection than any other group I have run into [including schools of psychotherapy]. Zen Buddhism was presented as cutting to the core of Buddhism, seeking to shed illusions, rather than just assuming Everything is an Illusion. So no robes, no incense, no prayers in foreign tongues. There was a lot of asking: What do you really know?

To Wittgenstein the situation, the word "introspection" can mean many things. Looking within can mean purposefully trying to remember something. It can degenerate into convincing oneself of something that is not true. It can become more generalized observation, like Know Thyself, or knowing your own personality. It can focus on consciousness itself.

It helps to look at other people's attempts at introspection. Consider human biology. The brain is meant to keep the body alive. The senses have evolved to allow us to eat while avoiding being eaten. Eyes, ears, nose, and touch are focussed outward. We have some sensors inside the body, too: we can feel tired, or sick, or energetic. We can feel hungry, thirsty, sad or happy. We can feel hate and love and gradations in between. But we have no ability to look inside ourselves at our internal organs, or our cells, much less our DNA. We are not set up for introspection of our own bodies.

What about our minds and brains? We can decide to try to remember things, which is a sort of introspection. But we are unable to know where these memories are stored, or how, by introspection. Even scientists with fancy probes have problems figuring that out. Then there are the many aspects of intelligence, from how we learn to dribble a basketball, to how we learn to talk, to why we can imagine the world around us, even with our eyes closed. None of that processing seems to be visible to introspection. The brain was designed to look outward, not inward. That is one reason why, when a person becomes psychotic, the brain has little ability to heal the personality and mind.

As in so much in life, I believe that trying to do introspection leads to a contradiction. To know ourselves, we must look outward. As children we learn by watching other people. Later we can watch others with more of the purpose of learning about ourselves. We can consider what another person thinks of our behavior. We cannot all be mind scientists, but we might all do better if we each read a psychology text, at least an introductory one. We can read about nature, and evolution, and the descent of humans from our non-so-sapiens ancestors. Or at least watch video to the same end.

When I was a teenager a very influential book was called The Naked Ape. It certainly gave me a think. A more recent good thought provoker is Eve by Cat Bohannon. More specific to the human brain and consciousness I can recommend Touching a Nerve by Patricia Churchland. There are, of course, many works in writing that might help specific people with their introspection paths.

Despite the limits of introspection, I recommend that people make attempts at it. There are dangers, of course, like becoming obsessed with it, or ending up enslaved by some dead-end cult. As Nature has taught us, consider the options, choose one, and see how it goes. If your choice seems to turn our badly, hopefully it won't kill you. You can choose other introspection options and build up a picture of yourself and the world over your life time.

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