The Neurophenomenological Self

Photo by Jessie Eastland.
Photo by Jessie Eastland.

What is Embodiment?
Embodiment refers to the bodily aspect of human subjectivity, the kinesthetic awareness of our body as the vehicle through which we experience the lived-world. It is not a cognitive understanding of self in the world, but a proprioceptive, tacit, prereflective, intersubjective awareness connecting the mind, brain, and physical body through perception-action interactions with the environment. We embody existential-phenomenological states by ‘being in the world’ and coupling with our environment. But how is consciousness related to the brain and the body?

The Subliminal Self
F. W. H. Myers (1892, 2001/1903) proposed the concept of a subliminal self, in which consciousness was conceived as a spectrum of states ranging from the psychopathic to the transcendent. He described the ability of the subliminal unconscious to express itself as a mythic and poetic imperative. The mythopoetic function of the unconscious enabled the person to conceptualize reality beyond language through the ineffable symbol in which the unconscious took on a transcendent dimension (Myers, 1886). The subconscious or subliminal region was the doorway to transforming experience as it opened the entire range of states beyond the margin.

The work of William James speaks to the core of this vision of the self as experiential. James (1890) described consciousness as a stream; a field with a focus and a margin, a plurality of waking and subliminal states (1902), and pure experience embodied in feeling and sensation (1904, 1912). He argued that the underlying nature of consciousness or the self is a unified field of pure experience with no content other than itself, where all processes of representation are fluctuations or qualified states of this underlying field. His concept of pure experience was another name for feeling or sensation. Its “purity” was relative to the amount of unverbalized sensation that it still embodied (1904, p. 94).

The Phenomenology of Consciousness
William James (1892/1961) saw the mind and body as a fluid, integrated whole prior to the subject-object dichotomy, the self being constituted through their interaction joined at the level of lived-experience. He divided the self into an objective known empirical ego—the me, which he further divided into material, social, and spiritual aspects, and the subjective knower, pure ego, or the I. The spiritual me was “composed of the more active feeling states of consciousness; the core and nucleus of our self, a direct revelation of the living substance of the soul” (p. 43), while the I was “the agent, soul, transcendental ego, spirit; or thinker behind the passing state of consciousness lending unity to the passing of thought” (p. 63). The identity found by the “I” in its “me,” was only a loosely construed thing; “an identity on the whole” (p. 72) that was divided into mutations of the self based on alterations of memory. For James, experience had no inner duplicity between subject and object. Thought was itself the thinker. In his theory of mind-stuff, James posited a relationship between the bare phenomenon or the immediately know thing and the phenomenon of changing brain states, i.e., the pulse of consciousness that is cognizant of its object. He argued that the entire brain process is the state of consciousness—the soul a medium upon which these processes combine their effects. But how, or why, no mortal may ever know.

What is Psychoneurointracrinology?
Psychoneurointracrinology explores this explanatory gap between the mind and the brain. It is the study of psychological, neurological, and intracrinological processes forming a mind-brain continuum within the person. Psycho (psychological) refers to constructs variously referred to as psyche, self, soul, mind, and consciousness. Neuro (neurological) refers to the composition and reactions within the nervous system. Intracrine (intracrinological) refers to the intracellular biosynthesis of steroids, the binding of receptors, and the formation of enzymes that catalyze the creation of hormones within the cell (Gordon, 2007, 2013, in press; Robbins & Gordon, in press). It views the person from an existential-phenomenological perspective as an embodied autopoietic system and a psychodynamic plurality of states—a growth-oriented psychospiritual gestalt that is always in the process of becoming.

I have argued that Self is embodied in psychoneurointracrine mechanisms that are biochemically and energetically rooted in the relationship between the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG; sexual) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA; adrenal) axes of the body (Gordon 2013). The HPG axis modulates the development and regulation of reproduction, immunity, and aging. The HPA axis is an adaptive system that maximizes survival potential in the face of physical or psychological challenge via the fight-or-flight response to stress. Activation of the HPA axis can occur reactively in response to psychophysical challenge or in anticipation of stress, initiated by the person’s comparison of environmental stimuli. The HPA axis is keenly sensitive and also refractory to fluctuation in gonadal steroids (Herman et al., 2003). These axes affect the regulation of neurosteroids and neurotransmitters within the central nervous system (CNS) and the neurophysiology of emotion, perception, and memory in accordance with the person’s perception of experience, and moment-by-moment existential-phenomenological state.

Very briefly, estrogen regulates affective arousal via cortical-subcortical control in the hypothalamic circuitry; progesterone synthesized by the adrenal gland plays a major role in stabilizing nerve function and adapting to stress as the precursor of the glucocorticoids, cortisol and cortisone, which regulate blood sugar and inflammation, and the mineralcorticoid aldosterone, which regulates salt, water balance, electrolytes, and blood pressure. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is synthesized by the adrenal gland and created de novo by neurosteroids in the brain, serving a primary role in adrenocortical regulation. DHEA modulates neurotransmitters biosynthesis and receptor sensitivity within the CNS where neuronal projections to the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus govern the anticipatory and reactive response to stress. Estrogens, progesterone, and DHEA integrate the person’s prereflective, autonomic, and subliminal experience in the development of meaning and the emergence of self.

The Neurophenomenological Self
The construct neurophenomenological self represents the growth-oriented dimension of the person. This dimension is poignantly articulated in the work of humanistic psychologists Charlotte Bühler, Abraham Maslow, and C. G. Jung. Bühler (1968) posited that healthy personalities were active mediators of their own existence, motivated to maintain homeostasis, change, and growth to fulfill biological and psychoemotional needs and spiritual values. Maslow (1971) posited that metamotivation and the values of life (spiritual, religious, philosophical, transcendent, and axiological) are rooted in the biological nature of the species.

In self-actualizing people, this embodied, psychological self became larger than its biological entity through identification with the higher self, the highest values, the non-self, and nature. Jung (1971) portrayed the adult as an eternal child who is always becoming, never complete, whose conscious realization or self-actualization through individuation was the aim of human development in the second half of life. The process of individuation through active exploration of the unconscious uncovered and facilitated the person’s potential wholeness. If the unconscious could be recognized as a co-determining quantity with the conscious, the center of gravity of the personality shifted from the ego and became located in a hypothetical point between the conscious and unconscious called the Self.

This growth-oriented transcendent dimension clearly manifests through our personal myths and narratives. Jung’s embodiment of nondiscursive symbols or archetypes and Myers’s language of the subliminal self are but two examples. Feinstein, Krippner, and Granger (1988) argued that “personal myths are internalized organizing models that shape perception, understanding, and behavior and in this sense are rooted in the individual’s biochemistry” (p. 182). I speculate that the mythopoietic function of the unconscious is built into the human species via psychoneurointracrine mechanisms.

The psychoneurointracrine system reveals the observer’s pattern of activity that is altered by experience—the phenomenological life world, intentionality, and attention—through a process of becoming that is conditioned by its past. Existential moments are a dynamic fusion of experience within us, resulting from a dialectical process and tension producing conflict out of which the sense of self emerges (May, 1975). This dialectical process is revealed in the balance between sexual and adrenal steroids at the HPG-HPA axes as the boundaries of the personality are integrated. It is not what happens to a person, but how he or she interprets it that determines its meaning, its outcome, and its myth. Self knowledge is the result of ongoing subjective interpretations that emerge from our capacities of understanding rooted in the structures of our biological embodiment.

Returning to my earlier speculation, the mythopoietic function of the unconscious may be built into the human species via psychoneurointracrine mechanism at the HPG-HPA axes representing a point where imago and persona converge. Jung’s (2001/1911) imago is the idealized mental image the person develops based on intersubjective relations that are unconsciously projected. The persona (mask) evolves from childhood as the person navigates stereotypes and societal norms developing a psychological framework for how to relate to others.

Hormones are catalysts of infinitesimal concentrations supporting and sustaining the evolution of human cells. It is their autopoietic capacity to transduce and transform that is the locus of an individual’s energic balance. The psychoneurointracrine system reveals the person’s existential-phenomenological state as an intersubjective point of reference for self in the world, giving ontological priority to consciousness and the perception of the observer as essential components of a psychological framework for a neurophenomenological science of self.

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Feinstein, D., Krippner, S., & Granger, D. (1988). Mythmaking and human development. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 28, 23-50.

Gordon, S. (2007). Psycho-neuro-intracrinology: The embodiment of myth, intentionality, and the spiritual sense of well-being in women at midlife. Dissertation Abstracts International, B 68/09. (UMI No. 3285857)

Gordon, S. (2013). Psychoneurointracrinology: The embodied mind. In S. Gordon (Ed.), Neurophenomenology and its applications to psychology (pp. 115-148). New York, NY: Springer.

Gordon, S. (in press). Psycho-Neuro-Intracrinology: The mind-body continuum. In P. Snider, J. Zeff, J. Sensenig, & J. E. Pizzorno, et al. The healing power of nature: The foundations of naturopathic medicine and the ecology of healing: Primary care for the twenty first century. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier.

Herman, J. P., Figueiredo, H., Mueller. K., Ulrich-Lai, Y., Ostrander, M. M., & Choi, D. C.,…Cullinan. (2003). Central mechanisms of stress integration: Hierarchical circuitry controlling hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenocortical responsiveness. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 24, 151-180.

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Jung. C. G. (2001). Psychology of the unconscious: A study of the transformations and symbolisms of the libido: Collected works, Supplementary Vol. B. (B. Hinkle, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1911)

Maslow, A. (1971). A theory of metamotivation: The biological rooting of the value life. In A. Maslow (Ed.), Farther reaches of human nature (pp. 299-339). New York, NY: Viking. (Original work published 1967)

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Myers, F. W. H. (2001). Human personality and its survival of bodily death. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads. (Original work published 1903)

Robbins, B. D., & Gordon, S. (in press). Humanistic neuropsychology: The implications of neurophenomenology for psychology. In K. J. Schneider & J. F. Pierson (Eds.), The handbook of humanistic psychology: Leading edges in theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

— Susan Gordon

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