Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Meaning, story, understanding

I've been reading a book on school psychology. (Psykolog i skolan, Schad 2009) This is what Leif Strandberg has to say about learning (my translation and emphasis):
"Letters, symbols, thoughts and knowledge are the tools of freedom and creation of meaning: The freedom to move beyond the world they [the pupils] occupy right now; the freedom to visit strange places and visit people they otherwise never could reach; the meaningful experience that the air they breathe, the water they drink and the stars glittering above are not only wonderful sensory impressions - they can be understood (!), and when they understand one thing they will discover that there is still more to understand, there is always another step to take, and then yet another one..."
And it struck me like a bomb. No, not the point he was trying to convey, but a different idea made up with the same images:

Meaning = Story = Understanding

We can imagine early humans, gazing up into the sky and conjuring stories of what the stars were, from where they came, what their names were... For man must understand the world.

In his book Psychological Therapy, Grawe cites Epsteins four basic human needs, the need for orientation and control being the most basic one. (The other ones being increasing pleasure and avoiding pain, the attachement need and the need for self-enhancement) This makes sense - What point would there be to all your mental processes if you couldn't use them to predict and exert control of the world?

So man conjured stories to explain and predict nature, and at the same time gave meaning to nature.

Today we can explain and predict nature through science, but science cannot provide meaning. Meaning is the sign of storytelling, the idea that there is a point to what we just heard - Things doesn't happen for no reason in a story, they happen because there was a lesson to be learnt, symbolism we could recognise or themes we could relate to our own lives. Back in the day, the Pleiades were not just a random configuration of stars, they were seven sisters, transformed into stars for a reason; Zeus had put them there to protect them and comfort their father Atlas, and the reason one of them doesn't shine quite as bright as the others is because she is shamed eternally for having an affair with a mortal. Now that's a story, there is a point to it, and it relates to us  humans, our lives and our emotions.

Humans are meningsskapande, (creators of meaning) that is, we seek to understand things in terms of what they mean to us, what emotional significance they carry for us. Events in our life must be interpreted in terms of meaning and emotion to be fully understood and integrated into our psyche. Thus, it can be said that every person has not only their own mental models, but also their own narrative (or story) of their life and the world around them. Psychologist Erik H. Erikson stresses our need to string our history of life events and choices together to make a coherent narrative. If we are unable to make sense of our actions and thoughts, predict them, find a meaning in them, this is a very distressing situation indeed - Our life doesn't make sense anymore!

Sense of Coherence
There is a questionnaire for measuring this in psychology, called Sense of Coherence, or SoC. It measures to what degree your life is characterized by comprehensibility, manageability and meaningfulness. Sociologist Aaron Antonovsky, who designed the model argues that everyone encounters stress in their life, but it is those with a sense of coherence that pull through and manages it, choosing to focus on health rather than disease in his model.

Our lecturer told us that SoC is a good asset when measuring therapeutic progress - Oftentimes other measurements and tests doesn't show improvement: There might be slight improvement on all symptoms and life issues, but no single factor has changed enough to provide statistically significant differences. With SoC you could show that that all these small improvements have lead to a point where the client now feels sie has control of hir life, can understand what's going on in hir life, and that there is a point to hir life - And in the end, that's the one most important thing.

Psychology, sociology, philosophy
In general, therapeutic psychology and psychological qualitative research stress understanding someone's narrative and and their feelings for the world, rather than the cold, hard and objective facts. To be understanding is to know what another person feels, to see things from their perspective.

I suppose this is obvious stuff to students of sociology, but this was the moment things fell into place to me - I suppose you could say I went from knowing it to understanding it, a process sought after in psychotherapy: When the client process something not only intellectually, but also emotionally, it becomes a real process. You need to activate the emotions and work with them to really make a difference. (Process activation)

I think you could also make a parallell to existentialism, the philosophy where mankind must find meaning in a world where science has replaced stories.

I don't really know much about narrative psychology or related sociology, but I think I should check it up. Anyone suggestions for good reads?

Oh, and I picked up Play Unsafe yesterday. Looking forward to it!

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