Transcendent Values and the Self

In chapter 5, I described Panksepp's and Damasio's concept of a protoself. They proposed that the limbic system functions as a monitor of the individual's holistic emotional states. In this sense the limbic system is analogous to an unconscious protoself, for the self can be thought of as a system that maintains a psychological cohesion analogous to a physiological homeostasis. The selection of values at the level of the protoself does not require consciousness. This same limbic system that monitors emotions, signaling the individual's holistic homeostatic needs, at a higher level, provides the values that select for the needs of the psychological self.

Values that express the needs of the individual as a whole can be described as transcendent. This transformation of biological values into psychological values would be impossible without metaphor and language. What I am suggesting is that the limbic system, responsive to the individual's ho-meostatic needs as a whole, has an analogue in the need for coherence and the transcendent values that characterize the person, the social self. However, the analogy to physiological homeostasis breaks down, as transcendent values associated with personhood do not necessarily serve self-preservation. As William James observed, it is sometimes in the interest of a particular self not to survive (Myers 1986).

The actualization of the self, in Western culture, is thought to be the highest transcendent value. It takes precedence over the individual's need to survive. An individual may sacrifice his life for a belief. Self-destruction, for some, may be a means of self-actualization. Self-destruction may be an expression of a passionately held belief, the altruistic sacrifice of the self for a "higher" goal.4 Common sense and folk psychology have maintained that pleasure and pain are also examples of such transcendent goals of the self. If self-actualization is the highest transcendent value in Western culture, can we continue to believe that a calculus of pleasure and pain regulates and directs our lives?

Thomas Aquinas believed that pleasure and pain regulated the lives of animals, but not of men. He said, "Sense appetites takes two different forms: one pleasure-seeking and the other aggressive. The former drives animals to pursue what pleases their senses and avoid what hurts them. What animals fight about is their pleasures: food and sex. [In man] reason can control such emotions" (Aquinas 1264, p. 125).

At the level of pure sensation, we may automatically respond to pleasure and pain as do other animals. We avoid physical pain, as do other animals, and we are not unique in our seeking of sensuous pleasures. That other species seek sensuous pleasure is probably more widespread than we have recognized. It has been suggested that even some fish "enjoy" being tickled. Panksepp and Burgdorf (2000) believe that the high pitched chirping sounds that rats emit when tickled are possibly an indication of laughter. That animals experience pleasure can be inferred from the fact that when given the opportunity, animals fitted with electrodes will voluntarily self-administer electricity into their brains (Panksepp 1998a). They in effect stimulate themselves. Pleasure centers in the brain have been identified in the lateral hypothalamus. This suggests that there is an evolutionary continuity between ourselves and other species regarding "pleasure" centers in the brain. However, if we place pure sensation to one side, there is a sharp discontinuity between ourselves and other species in our capacity to elaborate and interpret the experience of pleasure and pain.5 Pleasure and pain can be pure sensations, but in accordance with the semiotics of feeling, which I discussed in the previous chapter, pure sensations are immediately transformed by interpretation into feelings, feelings which are selected by the self. Ultimately, it is the self that selects what is pleasurable and painful. As Jerome Kagan observed, "No single biological state defines pleasure because it is finally a judgment" (1998, p. 152).

The experience of pleasure and pain is highly individualized and idiosyncratic and cannot be separated from the context of one's life history. This was known to Spinoza. He said, "Each affect of each individual differs from the affect of another as much as the essence of the one from the essence of the other" (Spinoza 1675, p. 185). If we translate Spinoza's "essence" into the modern concept of self, pleasure and pain, apart from raw sensations, are not universal biological regulatory principles, but are instead interpretations dependent on the self.

Ironically, Freud, who created psychoanalysis as a method for interpreting the experience of the individual, viewed human pleasure and pain as an impersonal psycho-physical process, a process that could be explained by the distribution of energy within the mental apparatus. He continued to be influenced by an idea he first formulated in "The project for a scientific psychology" (1895): that pleasure results when the psychic apparatus is relieved of a certain quantity of energy. Here Freud, as he admits (1920), borrowed Gustav Fechner's idea that the nervous system attempts to stabilize itself by reducing the quantity of excitement. Freud's "pleasure principle," we know, was super seded by the death instinct,6 which went "beyond it," but in both instances Freud sought explanations in universal principles. In this he was expressing a late-nineteenth-century ideal of science.

One promising line of investigation, which accords well with introspection, is the idea that pleasure exists more in expectancy and anticipation than it does in the act of consummation. Animal experiments have shown that the pleasure centers of the brains of monkeys are activated more by expectation then by reward (Panksepp 1998a). I am reminded here of Oscar Wilde's aphorism: "In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

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