The concept of self-regulation is popular in psychology, and in my (clinical) part of psychology it crops up especially in relation to 'affect regulation' and 'mood regulation'. I've a worry about it. My worry is that it too-often looks like an explanation of why we don't go manic or get in a funk, or how it is that a toddler or PD sufferer may struggle in situations when others don't, or how (in non-clinical contexts) we're able to use words correctly - when instead it's (at best) very often no more than a non-elucidatory re-description of these facts.

The concept of regulation implies, I suggest, that we meet with two things: one is the regulator (like a
servo), the other is that which is regulated. These two are in a causal (often negative-feedback-providing - i.e. dampening) relation. The ballcock regulates the water level in the cistern: as it rises it shuts off the water supply.

Now, I take it that the brain is full of 'servo mechanisms' - that there are myriad negative feedback processes at play within it and between it and the body and environment. I'm not here concerned with these. What I'm concerned about is the utility of the 'regulation' idea when we stay at the psychological level of description.

There are cases where it's clearly apt. A toddler needs her emotional reactions to be regulated by her mother. Here we have two things (a toddler, a mother) in relation. She picks her up, soothes her; the toddler calms down. Perspective is returned. So here we have bona fide (external) regulation.

Over time the toddler benefits from these maternal soothings. And now, when faced by the upsetting wait for food or the pang of hunger or the disappointing absence of a toy, she no longer has a meltdown. She tolerates the situation.

It's always tempting to ask for explanations of how we're able to exercise abilities. Unfortunately, however, this temptation is too often followed by another - to attempt their answer.

When we think on self-regulation of affect we tend to imagine that we become able to not freak out so frequently either because we can now bring thought to bear on feeling or because we use self-soothing techniques (breathing, calming self-talk, self-distraction, etc.). We may consider that we've now 'internalised the mother's soothing voice', for example - and now we 'tell ourselves' the things that she used to tell us.

Now, and of course, something like this sometimes happens! You start getting upset with your partner but this time, because you've recently been going to therapy, you find your therapist's words ringing round your head: 'You tend to find in him what you experienced from your father / what you don't want to see in yourself'. 'Hmm', you think: the thought, perhaps accompanied by a memory of your therapist's firm but kind tone of voice, puts a check on the development of your anger.

What I want to object to, however, is the idea that this story - of an external servo mechanism becoming internalised where its actions can still properly be described in terms of regulation - is anything like a good account of our normal human ability to not get in a tizz.

Here's another kind of story about emotional development: You have a primitive set of far-too-black-and-white reactions to the world. The dismal ones overwhelm you and prevent you from learning from experience - prevent you learning that, in fact, matters aren't as dismal as you take them to be. Luckily your mother soothes you, and helps you see things differently. She brings to bear a more refined set of discriminations. You learn these discriminatory capacities, and the next time you're in the previously difficult situation you respond in a more nuanced way ab initio.

In this second story there's no answer to the question 'How do you now exercise this ability to not get in a tizz?' There are neurobiological or developmental histories that could be given ('Well, admittedly I used to wig out quite often, but then my mother/therapist taught me some other ways of seeing things, and the dampening interconnections between my prefrontal cortex and my amygdala became more abundant as as result(!), so now the difficult feelings just don't come up...'). But taken as a question about how it is that people exercise their abilities the 'how' question strikes us now like someone asking 'How were you able to speak the last sentence you spoke?' (after all, you couldn't always speak with such poise and precision) or 'How were you able to read what I just wrote?' There's just no good answer to these questions if we take them as inquiries into psychological rather than neurological processes. There's no reason to suppose that there's any 'how' when it comes to reading. If there had been some obstacle to our simple non-methodical exercise of our capacities, then there would still be space for a 'how?' question, but in the absence of an obstacle it's not clear what it's doing.

Psychologists too often take their theoretical lead from a perceived consilience of three stories about our ability to not freak out in difficult situations. One of these comes from neurology: the emotionally mature person has a richer set of negative-feedback-generating mechanisms in the relations between (say) the frontal cortex, the mid-brain, and the right hemisphere. (I'm not saying this is a true story - for all I know it may be crazy - but something like it is at least out there and it has a ring of plausibility.) These mechanisms are then thought of as the neural embodiment of (second story) the learning we do at our mother's or therapist's knee. (And that's fair enough.) The latter experiences are of external psychological regulation, the former mechanisms are of internal neurological regulation. Furthermore (third story) we do sometimes do something worth calling psychological self-regulation: we bring thought to bear on feeling, engage in self-soothing behaviours, etc. All of this then tempts us into falsely imagining that normal healthy adult emotionally apt responses to the environment, and the cessation of emotionally in-apt overblown responses, must be a function of having developed an ability to psychologically self-regulate. But that's a terrible inference. It overlooks the significance of the simple progressive conditioning of our emotional responses through experience. It overlooks the possibility that, because of my past learning, because of my therapy, I'm no longer in a situation where I have affective responses which will escalate unless they receive psychological regulation.

The concept of 'self-regulation' also gets used in non-clinical and non-affective contexts. Here's a quote from José Medina's The Unity of Wittgenstein's Philosophy; he's talking about language learning:
The normative background that the teacher brings to bear upon the behaviour of the novice is progressively made available to the learner through the training, up to the point where the learner's behaviour becomes regulated by norms without the assistance of the teacher, thus becoming an autonomous practitioner. In other words, by interacting with masters who structure and regulate the learning environment, novices come to adopt structuring and regulatory activities of their own. The process of initiate learning is, therefore, a process of acquiring autonomy or gaining control in normative practices. What characterises this process is a gradual shift of responsibility and authority, a developmental progression from other regulation to self-regulation. Initiate learning is thus conceived as a process of enculturation or apprenticeship: we learn norms by being enculturated into rule-following practices, by mastering their techniques. (p. 165)
The questions I have are: 1. What is it for linguistic behaviour to be 'regulated by norms'? Or: what does it mean to describe language learning as 'gaining control in normative practices'? 2. Are we sure that 'by  interacting with masters who structure and regulate the learning environment, novices come to adopt structuring and regulatory activities of their own'?

With respect to that 2nd question, undoubtedly that is how novices come to adopt such activities when they do, but what I'm concerned by is rather the implicit suggestion that the ability to use language correctly need involve the ability to correct oneself when one errs. But let's focus on the first question. Linguistic behaviour, I take it, is properly described as normative if by that we mean simply that it involves uses of words which are meaningfully described as either correct or incorrect in the circumstances of their deployment. A child may use the word 'cow' when she means 'horse'; the teacher corrects the child; the child learns to speak without making such mistakes. But in what way do these norms regulate the behaviour? For sure, the norms license what is and isn't to count as correct linguistic behaviour. But that's a conceptual point about what here counts as correct behaviour. It 's not a causal point about how correct behaviour is produced. But the concept of 'regulation' seems to incline us towards the thought that the behaviour in question is now under 'control' of some sort.

Something of a slip between the logical and the causal also seems to me to appear in the following (also from Medina):
For Wittgenstein, an essential part of the training into [sic] a rule-governed practice is treating the learner as if she were (already) a member of the practice, as if she could not only conform to the rules of the practice but actually follow them. The teacher treats the pupil's correct responses as indicative of an incipient competence and her incorrect responses as "mistakes". But the learner's reactions to the training are invested with normative significance only when viewed against the background of the whole rule-governed practice. And this is something which, by definition, the initiate learner cannot yet do by herself. Because of her lack of competence, the initiate learner does not yet exhibit self-corrective behaviour; her behaviour is subject to the check and correction of the teacher. These evaluations and corrections of the pupil's response are essential for structuring her behaviour normatively. (p. 164)
Now, perhaps Medina is just reserving the word 'normative' or 'rule governed' for behaviour which is engaged in by a person who could, if it came to it, self-correct the behaviour in question. In which case I've no problem with the passage. But it seems to me natural to use the word 'normative' for any behaviour which can properly be described in terms such as 'correct' or 'incorrect', and unnatural to say that a behaviour couldn't properly be so described unless the agent in question could self-correct that very behaviour. For I can only self-correct my use of a word if I accidentally use it in a way which goes against my current (or future, if the correction is in retrospect) understanding of how the word is properly used, but I may use words wrongly, and benefit from the correction of others, without doing that. After I've learned the meaning of the word I shan't, on the whole, need to self-correct my uses of it, although when I'm tired I can tend to mis-speak.

To summarise: we shouldn't think that just because we learn to use words correctly by learning from the feedback of others, that our ongoing correct use amounts to providing ourselves with ongoing internal feedback. That sits too close to the cognitivist idea that learning a language involves internalising / implicitly learning the rules against which our practices can be judged as correct or incorrect. But that way with rules and norms puts the ruly cart before the normy horse: it encourages the spurious idea that the normativity of language can be explained in terms of the rules which we can formulate to describe linguistic praxis, when in fact the normativity of that praxis is sui generis, and the rules in question are only described as correct or incorrect depending on whether they aptly articulate the praxis. Similarly with affect regulation: we shouldn't think that just because we manage to approach situations with a more level emotional disposition than we had when we toddlers, and just because we achieved this level headedness as a result of the soothing our therapists and mothers et al gave us, that we must now be engaged in self-soothing. That may sometimes occur, as may self-correction in linguistic praxis, but very often may be utterly irrelevant to our achievement of affective and linguistic finesse.

To conclude, I'd like to make a partly concessionary remark in favour of the idea of self-regulation, one which saves it by refusing to read into it the grammar I read into it above (where I said that the concept of regulation inexorably presupposes relata in an e.g. dampening relation). When we think on 'knowing thyself' - i.e. on achieving that kind of self-knowledge that was commanded by the Delphic oracle and aimed at by psychoanalysis - we can see that it rarely involves positively coming to know facts about oneself. Rather it involves removing certain defensive obstacles to straightforward self-expression. It involves an absence of self-deception. (Augustine said something like this: self knowledge is not the gaining but the removing of something within.) So perhaps we can similarly be more charitable in our estimation of the grammar of 'self-regulation'? We might put it like this: The person who comes to 'self-regulate' was previously in the grip of unhelpful vicious spirals of 'negative thoughts' inspiring 'negative feelings' and 'negative behaviours' etc. These spiralling interactions of allegedly separate moments of psychic life throw the person off emotional kilter, disturbing her perception of her situation. So coming to 'self-regulate' may accordingly be read as meaning not that one is actually in some self-dampening relation to oneself, but instead only that one is not now prey to some self-intensifying form of emotional reaction, or that one simply does not need other-regulation. And I think that would be fine. However the idea of self-regulation remains unhelpful to the extent that one is tempted by the idea that as we emotionally mature we no longer need the regulating presence of others because we can now self-regulate. It's the 'because' that here is spurious.


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