The Narrative and Experiential Aspects of Self

Our experience of being a person is constructed through the interaction of two primary mental modes. The Narrative Mode is the way we make sense of our experience and elaborate a story of ourselves that extends across time. It involves thinking, reflecting on the past, simulating the future, making associations and seeing patterns. This mode of thinking happens automatically when we don’t need to be fully focused on what we are doing. The name of the brain network that is responsible for this mode says it all; the Default Mode Network (DMN).

The other mode is the Experiential Mode. It involves experiencing what is happening to us as a feeling, conscious creature in a body at the present moment. It involves experiencing and sensing what’s going on in our body-mind and fully feeling our feelings and emotions. It involves interoception – attending to the signals that arise from within our bodies. This mode is underpinned by the Interoceptive Network.

I find looking at our lives through the lens of these two modes of experiencing, and looking at our experience through the lens of these two brain networks, to be utterly fascinating. My professional interests as a research psychologist and scientist have coalesced around this perspective, for a number of reasons.

These modes of self are constantly interacting, but in a given moment, they are anti-correlated. This insight comes from work looking at the activity of ‘large-scale brain networks’: increased activity in Interoceptive Network acts as a switch that reduces activity in the Default Mode Network, and vice-versa. To put it plainly, you can’t be fully thinking and fully experiencing at the same time.

This feels like an important insight. Much suffering in our society is the result of being too dominated by our thinking mode and an avoidance of our experiential mode. Depression and anxiety often involve being locked into negative narratives. Maladaptive patterns of behaviour like OCD and addiction often involve resolving unpleasant thoughts/feelings with a particular way to avoid certain feelings.

We know that being too identified with this thinking mode can undermine our wellbeing Many effective therapies can be looked at through this lens. Cognitive-behavioural therapy, the brand of psychotherapy that has been dominant for the past generation, can be thought of as working to restructure aspects of our thinking to make the narrative, thinking mode a nicer place to inhabit. Conversely, psychedelics involve profoundly disrupting the brain network that underpins our thinking, allowing the models and beliefs reinforced by our thinking patterns to be reshaped.

Realising that; 1) not having an appropriate and flexible balance between our narrative and experiential modes, between our thinking and feeling, is a threat to our wellbeing, and 2) that these modes (and the brain-networks that underpin them) are anti-correlated, suggests that fully experiencing our interoceptive sensations and feeling our feelings can be therapeutic.

This isn’t a new insight. The importance of the experiential mode and the body is increasingly appreciated in psychology. The increased immersion in interoceptive sensation and the cultivation of particular attitudes (eg. acceptance, non-judgement, self-compassion) towards sensations, feeling and thoughts are believed to be key mechanisms behind the therapeutic effects of mindfulness, which is now routinely incorporated into the treatment of all forms of mental anguish, including depression and addiction. Emotion focused psychotherapies usually centre on becoming attuned to and learning to relate differently to our feelings and emotions. Additionally, dynamics that affect the body are increasingly seen as relevant to the dynamics of the mind: witness the increased appreciation of the influence of food, sleep and exercise on mood and cognitive functioning, and the focus of somatic psychotherapy on the emotional and physical experiences of the body in trauma. I feel that the dominant Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy approach, of using thinking to reshape our thinking, has neglected or at least under-appreciated the experiential, feeling aspects of ourselves to.

So this is what would drive me to do the years of research involved with a PhD. But exactly what I would research remains uncertain. I could do in depth work on the brain networks themselves, looking at how they interact under different conditions, how their interaction gives rise to different experiences and even how their activity can be influenced using brain stimulation, training or drugs. Alternatively, I could look from a more therapeutic lens, examining how certain practices or treatments centred on interoception effect people’s experience, balance and flexibility of their narrative and experiential modes, and how this is reflected in the underlying brain networks. Or perhaps not a focus on interoception, but on how the self is constructed and altered. Either way, I find a mix of brain science and subjective experience, known as the neurophenomenological approach, to be the most interesting.

To be continued, I guess.

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