Sunday, November 27, 2005

Shared Subjective Experience Theory


Various techniques are employed with varying degrees of success to deal with children and adults suffering the effects of attachment problems. If the following hypothesis is correct, more efficient and meaningful techniques may be employed by identifying key elements that may required for optimal bonding.

The need to apparently share subjective experience is a driving force in human beings. The adverb, "apparently", must be used because we must use objective means to do so. The exclusive privacy of subjective experience is the crux of the matter. If we are deprived of this element, we cannot grow cognitively, emotionally, and psychologically. It is the driving force that has urged us to develop language, to work together with and for each other, and it is the driving force that has developed civilizations. On the level of the individual, it connects us to our caregivers and our caregivers with us. It is the underlying current of our social development and it is why we fall in love.

This may also be an important factor in the process of development. While it may be obvious that attachment is important to the health of the infant or child, it may also be an important factor to facilitate growth throughout the life span.

Deprivation of meaningful shared experience is harmful, not only to human beings, but to various other species as well. Its deprivation can retard growth on a number of dimensions.

The pioneers of work into the study of human attachment was done by John Bowlby and his student, Mary Ainsworth. Much of their work remains valuable and significant to the field. On one important dimension however, Bowlby was, thankfully, mistaken. We now know as a result of modern tachnology, that the adult brain is mallaeable and is not condemned to early attachment patterns as Bowlby had assumed. Bowlby saw that there are optimal times in the growth to secure ideal attachment patterns. While there is nothing wrong with that assertion, Bowlby's further assumption, that once that age or developmental period has passed, then the attachment problem is incorrigble, is incorrect. Jerome Kagan of Harvard University and others had argued against this pessimistic assertion prior to the advantage of brain scans.

Brain scans have led to the discovery that the orbito frontal cortex may change in the adult brain with proper stimuation. This is the region of the brain that governs attachment. This discovery is cause for great optomism and hope for treatment of all humans, no matter what age they are. The earlier assumption confined treatment to young children who, ultimately, had to rely on their caregivers for the dialectical relationship that is neessary for a healthy attachment. If it was true that only one party in the relationship had the opportunity of response to treatment, then the prognosis is poor for both parties.

Basis for the hypothesis

The basis for this hypothesis, that it is the sharing of subjective experience that is the fundamental element that underlies attachment drive and behaviour, requires an examination of the very basis and context of our living experience. It requires us to delve perhaps in a rather philosophical view, but one that appears to on quite solid ground.

Ultimately, we are alone. We are alone in our experience. We may share information and agree that a given square is green. But we can never know how the other experiences the colour green or the shape or the texture of the world we live in. All our perceptions of thoughts, sight, feeling, hearing, taste and smell are private experiences. This reality is a reality that we cannot come to terms with. We fear this reality because it suggests that there is no substance to the self. The experience of the self is based in these perceptions as well as the experience of consciousness and so on. There is no substance to experience and therefore, there is no substance to the self. We spend our lives aiming to cover that reality up and the concommitant impulse is to repress our existential aloneness. Whether the sharing of experience is a means to fortify the illusion of self is correct or not, is not important. What is important is that we are disturbed when we experience ourselves as alone and cut off from the experience of others and if others are cut off from our own experience. Subjective experience cannot be shared and we must use objective stratgies, such as language and communication, work and play activity, or touch, to approximate the experience of the other and to include the other inside our own exclusive experience.

The drive to share experience has very likely been a driving force that has led to the development of complex language. Language assumes an agreement that 'green' means the same to you as it does to me. Whether it is the same or not is not as important as the following; first, that we consistently agree that a particular experience is green and secondly, that this is consistently the case. Language facilitates the objectification of a subjective world.

Through language, we have not only have developed a means of categorizing and naming objects and activities, we have also learned to conceptualize the world in a particular social ordering that has a fixed template in the cultural, social and economic mileau where we are located. The world that we have been born into has an order and a language. What is salient in that world is not up to the individual. It has been forged through generations of a working dialectic between the enviornment and the people adapting themselves to survive in that enviornment. There is also the dialectic betwen the subjective and the objective. The subject not only receives information from the objective world, but is able to pass subjective experience out into the objective world, giving the impression of sharing subjectivity.

We also learn to assimilate the culture and feed our individuality into the culture through play and work. Whether it is through play or work or through language, it is an impulse and a drive that lies beneath our conscious volition. It did not happen as a lucid and thought out plan for survival. Hunter gatherers did not hold a meeting and say that we should develop language or work activitires to better develop as societies and as individuals. There is no doubt that the material world has played a key role in the development of both language and work activity. Humans learned top work and communicate better as a means to survive. But that has limited explaining power. We have developed language and play and work activities that are remote from anything like survival. It seems that we use language for many of the same reasons we play, or work. Not as much as a means of survival as a means to connect with each other.

When we play or work, we share an experience with another human being. If we fashion a spear, we have taken a private mental experience and we have brought it from inside our private world out into the community. And we have learned skills and values from others that allow us to imagine the idea in the first place. As a result, we have made a connection with others. What was a private idea is now validated. Other human beings can see it in an objective context and apprieciate it. As they do so, the subject has the sense that his or her subjective world has been experienced by other human beings.

Whether we work or play alone or with others, we have a drive underneath our activity, a drive to share our mind and the notion that we are sharing our exclusive and hidden world with others.

Work and play with others requires immediate and direct contact with the mind of the other. If we play on a team, we must cooperate with our mates and we must agree on fending against the mind of the opponent. If we are small children playing with toys, we are learning to share the mental world of the other, with what is happening privately. We may not have developed this ability yet, but we are driven to play with others. We do not want to spend too much time alone. Do so will leave us with a feeling of distress.

That then is a short glimpse at the theory of the need for sharing subjective experience on a wider scale. Here we will examine the theory on a more psychological, or individual level.

The infant

The need for sharing sharing of subjective experience may begin moments after birth. Although the baby is not able to conceptualize self from other at that point, the process begins that will forge the basis of that individuals future. At birth, the child may experience a deep sense of rejection. The child is alive in a self contained world inside the womb. She is warm, and feeling satisfied without hunger in a dark liquid world. The seperation between her fingers and the fluid or the walls of the womb must not be aparent. Those tactile sensations may play an important role in her future need to bond. As in sexual union, we can feel both the body of the other and well as our own. There is no subjective seperation from the other unless we intend it.

Before long, the child experiences the distress of being squeezed through a painful passageway and expelled into a cold and loud world of brightness and pain. It is very possible that the trauma and rejecting quality of that experience is significant in the basic need to attach to other human beings.

The baby will cry, not of her own will, but when distress occurs. The body will naturally cry. The sound is also, naturally, odious. Prior to any bonding, the mother of the child will act to stop the crying and to do so, must address the baby's distress. This is the beginning of the process of bonding. In simple terms of behaviour modification, the child learns that it is not the distress alone that fetches a response. It is the crying itself that has power. However, this is a subtle and fine line. Subjectively, the baby learns that there is a human being that is aware of her own private world. Her hunger is satisfied by her mothers actions. Her discomfort and angst will be taken care of because there is a human being that is in union with the pain, the hunger, or the angst.

The child also has natural tactile needs and in the process of feeding, this is naturally tended to. The feeling of the mother's skin may be similar in some ways to the shangrila of the womb. The temperature and the sensation of skin places the proximity of other in a sense of union. The child's sense of body as seperate from what is not body is far from a conceptualized reality but still, it is a reality. And perhaps a primordial reminder of the rejection from the womb. When touch occurs, the distinction between the body of other and the body of the infant is blurred and a sense of union occurs. On some level, the sense of shared subjectivity is beginning. For instance, if we hold the hand of another person, we can feel our own hand and simeltaneously, we can feel the hand of the other person. In a very direct way, doing so is a means of apparently sharing subjectivity and it also blur the line between subjectivity and objectivity. Touch is perhaps the most direct and intimate means we have to share our experience with another and vice versa.

Beyond the pragmatic needs of feeding and cleaning, the caregiver develops compassion for the baby. Compassion is a contageous human perspective and as it had been done for the caregiver, the caregiver develops an increasing sense of compassion for the child as the caregiver repeatedly addresses her plight of needs. It is also likely that there are intrinsic impulses in the caregiver that facilitate a want and a need to care for the infant. Through this genuine love from the caregiver, the child learns about her face, her movements and her body. The infant learns that other humans are not pnly a means to meet needs, but they are in union with the infant.

Research has shown that infants will stare for a longer time at patterns that represent a human face than they will at other patterns. The affinity that human infants have for other humans may be deeper than learned responses. We may be wired from birth to an attraction to humans.

As bonding develops, caregivers will smile and speak to the baby in tones that are naturally attractive to infants. This motherese language comes naturally to caregivers and babys respond naturally. They also will hold their gaze on a mother's face that is smiling and attentive to the baby. Should the mother develop a cold or indifferent attitude, the baby will look away. This locking of mutual attention may also be intrinsic. What it does do is places the baby's mental attention on the nuances and subtlies of facial expression and emotional meaning. The baby learns to take her emotional cues from her caregivers responses.

All these behavioural patterns are leaning in the direction of sharing apparent subjectivity.

If we examine human development theories, and we place the light of this theory on them, we will find that they are illuminated. For instance, if we examine Erik Erikson's theory of development we can easily see that apparent shared subjectivity may explain the reasons why we develop in the ways that we do. We will do so on this site at a later date and we will also set these ideas next to various other onservations made about bonding, development, and human behaviour in general.


The purpose of exploring this theory is to meet the needs of those that suffer from attachment disorders. Treatment is seemingly heading the the right direction. But if we can pinpoint the underlying reasons for attachment disorders by more fully understanding attachment itself, we may develop more precise and effective means of helping those that need it.

With this in mind I encourage and welcome dissenting or supporting opinions.

This page is a beginning and merely an outline of this particular hypothesis. Further pages will be added examing each stage of development and how shared subjectivity plays its role in the human activity and how it helps satisfy the needs of the individual in that stage. Pages will also be added to further explore the sociological relevance of this hypothesis.

Further pages on this site will expand on these themes.