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Carl Jung's Persona I: Social Cognitive Context

    Interaction between two individuals requires a common, narrow cognitive context. If every time we interacted with someone else, we were exposed to all the information they possess - and were directly conscious of all the information we have - simple actions, like buying a gallon of milk, would become nearly impossible to execute. This temporary narrowing of an individual's cognitive context so that social interaction can take place is at the root of Carl Jung's concept of "persona".

    At the conscious level, establishing a common context between two individuals is quite simple: they need only to explicitly agree on certain terms of interaction. The subconscious, however, also plays a big part in human interaction, from the body language used, to basic assumptions as to what is on the other person's mind. However, unlike conscious thought, which we can direct at will, our subconscious context must be properly set up in an automatic manner. The main solution developed by our pre-conceptual ancestors was the emotional response of "feeling someone's eyes on you" - a trait which is still part of our mind's identity.

    The very act of interacting with someone puts our minds in a particular context. We become automatically, and subconsciously aware of certain rules that must be followed, and certain boundaries that must be maintained. More often than not, those rules were handed down to us arbitrarily, and automatized before we were able to question or fully understand them. This set of habits then becomes a relatively independent existent, that must be understood and dealt with, if we wish to control it. The Jungian persona is the concept that identifies this relative independence of our social sub-personality, and the need to actively integrate it once we reach adulthood.

    It is important to clarify that this idea does not imply any sort of social determinism. When someone calls our name, we have no choice but to shift our awareness to them - our previous and subsequent actions however, are under our control. In the same way, we can question and reshape our social habits, and indirectly control our own personas by previously choosing which interactions we allow ourselves to have. We cannot, however, choose to have an interaction, and at the same time "feel like we're alone", because emotions are automatic responses to perception.

    An interesting concrete instance of the persona can be found in the act of showing someone our work. In my work with music, it is not uncommon to spend weeks micromanaging every single aspect of a song - to the point where looking at a song as an integrated thing might prove troublesome. A well known trick is to "show someone your work" - not necessarily to get their feedback, but because the act of presenting it changes your cognitive context, and your awareness of the object being presented.

    Much like the Jungian shadow, the persona is a necessary part of our psyche - it plays the role of maintaining a "social hygiene" in the way we interact with people. Like the shadow, its functioning is based on multiple interactions between our unconscious, pre-conscious, and conscious mental content. We must actively maintain a balance between the process of narrowing our context during an interaction, and broadening to its natural state, so we can have a proper awareness of ourselves, and existence as a whole. Failure to maintain this balance leads either to an inability to interact with others due to a "lack of filter", or worse - to the repression of everything but the persona in one's own mind, which will be the topic of tomorrow's post.

  -  May 14th, 2020

Carl Jung's Persona II: Possession

    Whenever we interact with someone, we are conceptually aware of what's essential - in the case of a conversation, what is actually being discussed - while our emotions provide us with the overall context of that interaction. If I'm talking to George, my subconscious is essentially running a "George model" - integrating all my assumptions about George into a cohesive whole, so I can "have a feel" of what is on his mind.

    If I'm talking to a store clerk I know nothing about, I'm running a more general "store clerk", or even an "other person" program. This is not accidental, but a necessity - people are too complex for us to keep all the necessary information about them in our conscious awareness throughout our interaction.

    After the interaction is over, our emotions will change in response to whatever it is we're doing next. We essentially quit the "George program" - after all, we don't want to waste limited processing power on a program we're not using. What happens, however, if we make a habit out of not quitting these programs? Even worse - what happens if we constantly run them, even when we're alone?

    The more a person evades, the less comfortable they are with themselves, as they will have nothing to distract them from the thoughts they avoid. A common defense mechanism is not allowing oneself to be alone inside one's own mind, by actively emulating the cognitive context of being with someone else - of "running the George program" in the absence of George. This is done by actively, and consistently directing our conscious awareness to our relationship with others, and their view of us, which pulls mental content that relates to those relationships to the pre-conscious level, at the expense of the rest of our knowledge.

    The consequence of this habit is the gradual corrosion of our own personality. Our mental models of other people are essentially "low resolution copies" of them. The person engaging in this habit is guided by those low resolution copies, and becomes essentially a caricature of themselves - a copy based on the reflection of copies. This is the psycho-epistemology of the second-hander, and often at the root of histrionic personality disorder.

    Jung conceptualizes the persona as an essentially social phenomena - the consequence of man's necessity to interact with others. I strongly disagree with that, and believe it to be an aspect of a much deeper, more general process, which I will discuss tomorrow.

  -  May 15th, 2020