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Phase Sequences, Language and Psychological Adaptation

April 5th, 2012 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 466 views | Send article | Print this Article |

By Robert DePaolo


This article discusses a model of psychological adaptation by applying components of Donald Hebb’s phasic model of cognition/ brain function to the clinical concept of experiential congruity as seen in the psychoanalytic, client-centered and cognitive-behavioral methods. The possible use of a-training (psycho-innoculation) method analogous to that of Seligman is discussed and self directive language is described as a mechanism of implementation.

Theory and Research…

Donald Hebb’ proposed a neurophysiological model of learning and memory, partly in response to his frustration over the impasse during his time between the behaviorists and introspectionists. He was interested in the meditational process in the brain, specifically what happens in the period between presentation of a stimulus and subsequent response that finally consolidates learning and memory. His solution was something he called the cell assembly. He suggested that the brain is organized into cellular configurations which become hypersensitized to specific inputs with repetition of those inputs (1949). In a sense this notion not only built a bridge between introspectionism and learning theory but also between respondent and classical learning theories since they were seen as theories devoid of a meditational, cognitive component..

Hebb postulated that with repeated inputs specific cell assemblies are activated in the form of loops or circuits. These loops could be more or less exclusive, depending on the habit strength incurred through repetition. However Hebb also felt brain activity consisted of multiple assemblies, trended toward formation of hierarchical loops, and that there was some probability that one cell assembly could merge with and be influence by another to form a higher order, mega-circuit. Hebb referred to the interactions among cell assemblies and the hierarchical influence they purveyed as phase sequences.

The main thrust of Hebb’s theory was to explain: A. how associative learning occurs and B. how new strategies, problem solving and creativity could co-exist as functions of the learning and memory process. The problem he faced was that while learning and memory require mental constancy – i.e. a fixed process typified by entrenched pathways – creativity and thought involve a more flexible inter-neuronal process. The theory of reverberating circuits provided an explanation to incorporate (aptly enough) both functions.

Hebb conducted research and felt the data tended to support his argument. It was hard to prove conclusively at the time, partly because research methods were less sophisticated than at present. However the more recent research of Kandel (2005) lent credence to the idea that Hebb’s model does reflect at least in part, how the central nervous system works..While the task of pinpointing the exact location and extension of reverberating circuits has proved elusive the essence of Hebb’s theory has also been substantiated by Wallace, Kerr (2010).

Beyond the study of learning and memory Hebb’s model implied that factors such as intelligence and problem solving should correlate with the amount of hierarchical cellular incorporations taking place during any given experience.

A Word Image…

To more fully explain, picture an array of neurons firing within a small circle in response to a task or experience. As per Lashley’s mass action theory of brain activation (1950) other neuronal circuits (cell assemblies) peripheral to this neuronal circuit are also active but still separate from the initial circuit. Due to this circuit variance other memories and perceptions are also brought up in the brain. At that point there is competition among circuits rather than unification or integration. The result is noise, i.e. an uncertain state in the brain. However as the task or experience continues (and depending on its nature) neuronal mergers occur and are recruited into what is now a larger circuit. This represents a phase sequence. Along with this hierarchical merger comes neural resolution, which translates into a pleasurable feeling for the individual. Whether or not the learner receives tangible reinforcement he feels a sense of closure and comfort as a result of circuit enlargement and noise reduction.

The transition from local to larger encompassing circuits is facilitated by a stimulus, which can be internal, external, perceptual, cognitive or linguistic. Once that facilitative stimulus exerts its influence the circuit will expand until it further dominates the mind, at which point peripheral intrusions, uncertainty and ideational conflict are minimized. In colloquial terms the new, big picture view facilitated by the phase sequence will tend to be psychologically soothing. (assuming of course that the big picture view is not catastrophic)..

Human Nature and the Utopian Fallacy…

Hebb applied this model in a neurobiological context but it might be applicable to other aspects of human behavior – specifically with regard to psychological adaptation.

Extrapolating from-Hebb’s model one could assume that a state of ultra psychological stability (a pocket Utopia) could be produced via phase sequence expansions within the brain, and that this might be manifest psychologically as attainment of perspective and conflict resolution. At face value one could surmise that such a mental state could produce an adaptive, benevolent psychological state resistant to psychopathology.

This is not a new idea. Analogous trends are seen now in the form of mantras, biofeedback training procedures, religiosity and other super-focusing mechanisms purporting to dominate sensorium and mind. On the other hand super-focus and real life don’t always coincide.

Actual experience is often typified by vicissitudes rather than monotony. Today’s resolution is tomorrow’s conundrum. While a singular state of mind (no matter how hierarchical) might override peripheral concerns a singular focus would in itself become aversive after a while. Brains need periodic stimulus novelty and informational conflict to remain receptive and active (Todovoric, Van Ede et al 2011) Indeed that’s one reason homo sapiens has this thing called art.

So like all other neuro-behavioral facets of experience, the reverberating circuit, phase sequencing idea notion implies a need for ongoing conflict resolution; contentment, pleasure, adaptation being intermittent phenomena.

A Pathology Paradigm…

Hebb did not address psychiatric phenomena in developing his theory but others did, particularly the renowned personality theorist Gordon Allport whose personality theory was derived in part from Hebb’s model. (1975) Allport’s concept of functional autonomy in particular was presented as a psychic correlate of the cell assembly.

While other personality theorists were not directly influenced by Hebb, many of their ideas on psychopathology are quite consistent with his model. For example several theories of psychopathology adhere to the notion that mental disorders are some function of discord within the mind, and by extrapolation, the central nervous system. Those ideas are couched in different terminologies but most revolve essentially around the idea – the root pathogen it you will – of conflict reduction. Freud viewed the cause of pathology (neurosis) as a clash between id and superego. He viewed the short term cure as a function of ego moderation. He viewed the long term cure as a continuing expansion of the ego, enabling various primal impulses to be channeled into socially appropriate behaviors for purposes of satisfying both urge and morality throughout human development

Hebb’s model enables one to look at Freud’s model in a different way, specifically by asking whether, as Freud maintained, the ego “referees” the bout between urge and morality or whether its neuropsychological purpose is most fundamentally circuit expansion (orchestrated by phase sequences) allowing the individual to incorporate urges and morals into a larger context, thus relieving his neurotic discomfort.

If the latter is what actually occurs at a neurological level, then Hebb’s notion might indeed be applicable to the clinical field. In bridging the gap between Freud and Hebb one could surmise that the ego comprises an activity within the brain featuring phase sequences and enlargement of circuits thus overriding conflict from competing circuits via greater and greater neuro-thematic hierarchical dominance.

The phase sequence model is consistent with other clinical methodologies. For example Carl Rogers’ client-centered model included the goal of self expansion, i.e a capacity to develop an overriding, fluid sense of self by which to assimilate experiences that might otherwise threaten the self concept. (1951) Rogers assumed a congruous relationship between counselor and client that overrode the phenomenological distinction between the two and was developed in an accepting, empathic tone was prelude to “perceptual loosening”, (self image expansion) and to the client’s progress.

Another view espousing the importance of overriding, incorporative themes was that of Alfred Adler, who believed the roots of psychopathology could be found in the conflict between feelings of inferiority and compensatory feelings of superiority. Adler believed this conflict could only be ameliorated if the client developed a broader sense of self, in this instance one tied to the larger society in the form of a broadly altruistic degree of“social interest” (1979) Ostensibly the process of expanding from self concerns to broader altruism could also be described in neuro-physiological terms as an outward manifestation of a phase sequence.

In a more recent context, cognitive-behavioral therapists use a similar method to overcome pathogenic schemata. Rather than simply challenging a client’s maladaptive ideas, as was done in the earlier rational therapy approaches, the C-B counselor attempts to find inroads to attitudinal change by seeking overriding, prosocial and adaptive schemes that both benefit the client and coincide with society’s behavioral standards (Beck, 2011). Ego therapy (from which C-B derives in part) obviously features a similar methodology. Arguably, both the C-B and Ego Therapy formats share a topography that could be defined in terms of phase sequences.

Benevolent Interference…

The application of phase sequence theory to clinical psychology brings to mind a somewhat awkward term that will be referred to here as “the interference effect.” It is defined as follows:

All mental activities, whether cognitive, mnemonic or emotional are a byproduct of phase sequences. The narrower the circuit the more dominant and influential the thought, emotion or memory. Even if that narrow circuit in pristinely accurate it is likely to be at least somewhat pathogenic (in the same sense that compulsions can lead to both skill expertise and anxiety).Whenever the cell assembly expands access to other loops is increased. As that occurs the impact of the smaller circuit begins to wane. It is overridden via a phase sequence. It is not good for consolidating specific memories, as Underwood (1957), Jonides, Nee et al (2006) and May, Hasher. (1999) have suggested via the interference theory of forgetting) but very good when it comes to overriding compulsions and coping with life’s vicissitudes..

If one could look inside the brain to observe neuronal activity during a therapeutic resolution, ie. during an insight phase, it might look something like an expanding loop of cell assemblies absorbing data from other circuits, thereby ameliorating the dominance of any single one.. In that context the client’s closure and attainment of a broader perspective could be defined as a neurologically induced counter-pathological process.

Beyond the fact that Hebb’s theory is clinically applicable, the general process of phase shifting would seem to have greater implications, particularly as it pertains to the use of language as a coping mechanism.

The Language Switch…

It is well known that the brain consists fundamentally of excitatory and inhibitory neurons – the “off and on buttons” whose rhythmic interactions comprise what we globally refer to as perception, emotion, movement and cognition. One of the mysteries in brain research is how this duality is orchestrated. Obviously part of the process involves learning. After a task is learned it will tend to be re-activated under stimulus conditions that were present during the initial acquisition. Since specific circuits are activated in response to that stimulus-response pairing others will have to be inhibited to facilitate repetition of the learned response.

But since excitatory/inhibitory apportionment occurs in open ended circumstances prior to consolidation of a memory or learned behavior that wouldn’t seem to suffice as a complete explanation. There is another mechanism by which on and off neuronal systems can be orchestrated. It is through language.

Signals, Archaic and Modern…

There are two ways to look at language, particularly with respect to its evolution in the human brain and its broader place in nature. One is to say humans developed a unique skill resulting from brain expansion and subsequent cultural imperatives which did not exist before human origins. The other is to say that what we call “language” derives from a more basic source: that is has always existed as a fundamental communication device in all brains, initially, providing internal signals to orchestrate excitatory and inhibitory neurons and enable organisms to move in goal-directed coordinated fashion (later converted to sound making in animals and to grammatical, tonally complex speech in humans). The latter view is adopted here.

Speech does not equate precisely with either intelligence or cognition. However it is a guiding mechanism much more pervasively distributed around the brain than has previously been assumed, (Dubuc 2002). Most recent research indicates that in addition to its communicative functions language (particularly internal language typified by metacognition) prompts certain patterns of thought and emotion.. It has enormous potential with respect to how one responds and feels. Because of its broad influence on neurology and behavior, language in itself might be one method by which phases sequences can be expanded to enhance psychological adaptation.

As discussed above it is used in one form or another in many current counseling methods. The question is whether this skill could be taught preventatively as a lifelong skill outside the context of therapy.

There are reasons to believe this could be done and that it could produce a “psycho-innoculation effect” analogous to the one described in Seligman’s learned hopefulness model. One reason is that we use it instinctively in everyday daily life. The death of a loved one is often dealt with by statements like: He lived a long and meaningful life”…or…He was loved by his family and all those who knew him. It is used to cope with loss of a job, divorce and personal setbacks. Indeed it is virtually a default reaction to states of duress. In that sense it would seem this device could be refined to such an extent as to provide a life-long coping mechanism.

To do so would likely require some degree of training in semantics whereby individuals could be taught to use tight logic (Aristotelian syllogisms would fit the bill) to insulate themselves from extreme duress that often is prelude to psychopathology.

The Societal Gauntlet – A Caveat…

The idea of semantic training as a means of adaptive phase sequencing, entails more than clinical finesse. There are practical and socio-moral elements to consider. As has been discovered by practitioners of the Ellisonian’ Rational Therapy Method, there is an expectation in western society that in certain situations, individuals are obliged to suffer. An individual able to “lick” the problem of psychological duress through ultra-efficient, linguistic phase sequencing skills might be labeled crass, cold and unfeeling. Beyond that, the act of overriding stress in this way might turn out to be ego alien for the individual and thus increase, rather than alleviate his anxiety.

In addition to practical and social implications the question of capacity comes into play. For example in order to create expansion through self-talk language would require credibility within the words because even intrapersonal communication involves a degree of persuasiveness .To tell one’s self “it’s always darkest before the dawn” might be too clichéd and non specific to have much influence. In order to be effective the words have to be specific enough to capture the essence of the stressful experience, while expanding its content into to a broader scheme. In that sense general language ability (perhaps even level of intelligence ) would be crucial determinants of how effectively any individual could use this method.

Another important factor is the range of meaning within the words. Suppose a stressful experience entailed x number of variables. For example the death of a family member could invoke feelings of loss, or if the person is of the same age group, a fear of ‘being the next to go.” The circumstances of the death can translate into high or low “personal danger probabilities” for the mourner. For instance if a person died in a helicopter crash, the empathic transferability would be less than if it were from cancer, which would be more experientially transferrable. (Very few people die in helicopted crashes, many more die of cancer) A number of other considerations could also come into play, requiring that the phase-sequencing language have varying levels of complexity.

As a general rule the more variables addressed and overridden through language the less duress incurred by the mourner. Conversely, the fewer the variables addressed and overridden by language the greater the potential for continued duress.

In that context, a preventative approach would ideally include not just training in the areas of logic and semantics but also introspection, since lack of self focus would preclude being able to assess all the variables. Not all clients would fit into this mold. Still it would appear that psychological duress is some function of focalized, exclusive circuits and that their expansion into larger cell assemblies via phase sequencing and language might prove beneficial, even if the details of such a method have yet to be worked out.


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