Saturday, March 18, 2006

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0114 - Stories and the Unconscious

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience."
-- Joan Didion, The White Album (1979)

I am finding this business of visualization, narration, and what Timothy Wilson calls the "adaptive unconscious" all consuming right now. Part of this is undoubtedly fed by my interest in how the mind can "heal" cancer (see Alistair Cunningham's most recent book Can the Mind Heal Cancer?). But another very significant motivator is my attempt to understand the sense of revelation I've experienced in writing my memoirs.

I cannot claim to have any great insights into the psychology or sociology of story telling, but I am becoming familiar, through my own autobiographical narratives, with the way the mind imposes patterns on the grab bag of the past merely through the effort of recollection and recounting.

Frankly, it amazes me. As I have indicated in these posts since my diagnosis of cancer, the very act of writing has been cathartic. It has been the single most creative response I have found to my condition. Even as I learn about other tools like progressive relaxation, deep muscle relaxation, meditation, visualization, goal setting, etc. through HopeSpring'sTools for the Healing Journey, my own intuitive grasp of the tool of story creation is the one I prefer most of all.

And of that tool, the most useful exercise has been memoirs (don't look for them online; they are not public; the URL is available on request to family and close personal friends). I have no idea if the exercise is healing my cancer, but it is helping me, at least I think it is doing so, at least my conscious mind hopes so.

I am searching for a mechanism or theory to help explain if and how this might work.

What I suspect is that creating stories about my past is a process of identity re-creation. But I also suspect that there is a battle going on between conscious identity re-creation and the unspecified, imperceptible self-concepts of the adaptive unconscious. In other words, while I may be able to renovate my conscious identity quite readily, the foundation of the adaptive unconscious limits what is possible in the "above-ground" of consciousness. Changing the foundation is essential, but extremely difficult.

I live both above ground and below the surface. If stories have contributed to creating a favourable cellular soup for cancer, then I have to find a way to re-create narratives for both the main floor and the basement. That is the only way I can see how the cellular soup can be changed by the mind, consciously and unconsciously (sorry for the mixed metaphors, but it's all I've got right now).

Stories that have created the dispositions and motives of the adaptive unconscious are rooted in early childhood, perhaps genetically predetermined to some extent, and hard to change (according to Timothy Wilson). That may be why researchers like Alistair Cunningham have had such a difficult time establishing credibility for their insights that the mind can affect the course of cancer, albeit only with great perseverance and determination.

The adaptive unconscious acts according to rules, using a kind of primitive "if-then" logic - "if I feel that someone is becoming aggressive with me, then I get angry, but say nothing, holding a grudge and looking for ways to sabotage that person in the future." In other words, the "if-then" logic is following a narrative template below the level of conscious perception. Here, then, is a possible link between personality and the biological conditions which either promote or hinder the growth of cancer cells.

Wilson documents how long-term, detailed written narratives about traumatic emotional events and psychoanalytic therapy which focuses on creating a constructive self-narrative both provide tangible benefits to clients and patients. These self-stories seem to work by being accurate in the sense of including the nonconscious aspects of one's personality, by providing peace of mind, and by providing a coherence hitherto missing in one's life, a coherence that obviates endless rumination and negativity. In addition, the story must be credible. If it isn't, it simply doesn't satisfy either the conscious mind or the adaptive unconscious.

I don't know if I'll ever have a decent grasp of the connection between narrative and biochemical processes in the body. What I do know is that my current experiment is about changing the narratives about myself from maladaptive to adaptive, from ill-conceived and inaccurate to appropriate and congruent with who I really am (not just who I think I am), from destructive to constructive.
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