It’s been quite some time since I’ve heard the tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge in it’s entirety. This holiday season I caught an excellent performance of it at my local play house. “A Christmas Carol” stands as a beacon of light from a variety of lenses. It has religious, ethical, and literary girth as a catch all for what ails society. Too much work and not enough play. Stephen King taught us what happens to “Johnny” when we get away from the warmth of human connection. A philosopher friend of mine calls “false dilemmas”, the everyday predicaments we set up between two unethical choices because we don’t take our time and pay attention to more creative solutions to problems. Ebenezer’s false dilemma was the choice between leaving the marginalized of the city to prisons and unsavory workhouses or lose his financial solvency. Maybe he was starting out on the wrong foot?
I’ll leave the religion, philosophy, and art up to others to look through at this story. When I watched the play this time I saw it through a brand new lens. Is it possible that here in the mind of Charles Dickens we see biopsychosocial dynamics at work? Could it be a story of how we process our autobiographical memory with the help of social supports and free up historical selves that have been left behind in our own mind’s eye? What could this classic time travelling trope tell us about the nature of a self that rides on the activity of the brain and is embedded in social relationships?
I went home and immediately began reading “A Christmas Carol” to my daughter after the show. If you have the opportunity, notice how many times Dickens mentions just how cold the man Ebenezer and his environment was. Sure enough, the make up and costuming of Scrooge reflected a stodgy and rigid body certainly lacking in flexibility. How did he get so? Can the body be effected so directly by the mind? By the self process? As one of my favorite neuroscientists, Antonio Damasio, titles a book, “The feeling of what happens”, the self is all about being aware of how the body is doing and where it has been.
Imagine our “kayak as self” metaphor again. What if the kayak were our awareness of our 5 senses of perception (sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound) as well as the 6th sense, our “gut feeling”. If you focus your attention on just these 6 senses and notice that you are the one doing the noticing, then you are experiencing what I call the “Experiencing Self”. An a-historical, ego. A process of communication between the body and mind focused around our direct perception of the outside world (5 senses) and our indirect, internal awareness (6th sense) of the outside world. That 6th sense comes from the neural nets wrapped around our major organs that feeds information to the brain about the outside world. It sounds like this, “I have a good feeling about this place!” or like this, “I have a bad feeling about this place”.
The Experiencing Self (EXS) doesn’t interpret, classify, categorize, or judge the world. It just experiences it as it is. As the play opens up, Scrooge has no time for noticing the holiday cheer around him and makes a “bee line” for his counting house and financial affairs. He is unshakable. As if he got out of his kayak and chained himself to his work bench. When he is visited by Jacob Marley, his deceased business partner, indeed the ghost is encumbered by a thick chain. As if the dead could get any stodgier! The constant stream of in the moment sensory experience (1-6) not only enlivens the body but provides information on how to make life more worth living. Had Scrooge allowed himself to be moved by the carolers, his kind hearted nephew, or the fund raisers he ran into he might have likewise found a way to warm from the cold realities of modern life. We might say that he “abandons” his EXS by returning his attention to his work when perturbed by the life around him.
And so the tale begins. Three spirits come to save the day. The ghost of Christmas past, present, and future. It’s like they put Scrooge in his kayak and walked him through his mind. He had made his self a stranger to that place, his mind. How curious? When we experience extended consciousness, we have the experience not only of the present moment but also of ourselves over time. We of course can be aware of our history and our past combined with our present allows us to imagine a self in the future. This is type of mental time travel is also referred to as autonoetic consciousness. We know that we know. Ebenezer forgot this. When we leave our body and chain ourselves only to repetitive internal experience we stop traveling through time in our mind’s eye. We not only can’t sense and feel our way to a better place right now, but we lose our imagination.
So the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge’s hand and walks him to his childhood. A place where he left behind not only pain but also joy and playfulness. The ghost knows that the EXS is the “weaver”. The part of our ego that is in a position to weave our history together in a way that allows us to predict a better future a make a better present happen. The EXS doesn’t make judgments, mock us for our mistakes, or conclude the odds are against us. The ghost invites Scrooge to remember what I like to call, “historical selves” (HXS). Those parts of our self system that have become stuck in the past. They are stranded, isolated neural networks that lure us in and lead to repetitive loops around only the worst part of the story. No wonder Scrooge would leave them behind. They are a drag! Imagine lugging a large wooden electric wire spool behind your kayak. Not helpful.
When we leave our 6 senses and become preoccupied with with non-spontaneous stimulation like the television, an ingested substance, an old repetitive argument, or the like, we blend with HXSs that deter us from experiencing autonoetic consciousness. We lose the weaving of past, present, and future that the EXS provides. It’s as if we are sleep walking and hop out of our kayak to sit on the spool trapped in the mud, unaware that the current is passing us by. Scrooge became so rigid not only because he left his playful child HXS but he built up a formidable Miser HXS self. Rather than drink a beer, hit the slots, or zone out with pornography, he kept his painful childhood out of mind by counting coins. Repetitive behaviors that preoccupy our mind help us gain distant from feelings that may threaten to overwhelm us and make life in the present more complicated. Rather than being “stuck in the past” I like to think its like “time has stopped”. If one aspect of time is gone, all are gone. At least in our mind. Its more like a limbo or purgatory. The lack of mental time travel is a sign our EXS and HXS selves are disconnected.
I call a HXS that pull us out of our kayak a disconnected historical self (DHXS). It’s like our history has become too present in our mind’s eye. It can capture our attention and make our ego our focus obscuring the external world. When people say someone has “too much ego”, this is what I think they are referring to. I don’t demonize the ego. I think that’s unhelpful because self compassion is important (more on that later) and because attempts to “transcend ego” as if it were a bad thing, leaves the EXS behind. The EXS is like a self process that has just a “dash of ego”. Enough identity to locate the body in the context of a room and own the sensory experience happening within it. Enter the Ghost of Christmas Present. She comes in to help Ebenezer separate his EXS from his DHXS. She shows him the fun he is missing playing games at the holiday parties he was invited to but declined to go to. She makes him aware of the fact that indeed other people have him in mind and for better or worse notice he exists. In light of her colleague freeing him up from his past she helps him see that along with the pain of his childhood and young adulthood, there is joy and playfulness that he could use to make the present good again. If only he could bring more of his whole self to the present. The catch is that rather than transcend his ego, he needs to go back and rescue it, bring it up to date with the present and begin imagining a better future.
Well you may have guessed how I see the role of the Ghost of Christmas Future. What could it look like if Scrooge could enter into the present and use his past as his “inner wisdom” to light the way forward? Like a self system made up of connected HXSs (CHXS) of course! Those neural networks imbued with identity and autobiographical memory that do not push out the EXS but support it to be the main focus of our attention. The CHXS allows Scrooge to enter into some pre-rehearsed way of thinking, feeling, and behaving that is also open to updating from the EXS. Maybe, a characteristic role we engage in that is responsive to the feedback of others, open to evolving in complexity, and willing to step back when we want to enter another role. The ability to develop routine behavioral patterns that are flexible to change themselves as well as being able to disengage from them to assume new patterns in response to the unconscious feedback from our instincts is what behavioral flexibility is all about.
When Scrooge interacted with his nephew who was in a state of CARE inviting his uncle to dinner, we can imagine Ebenezer’s CARE instinct activated out of his awareness. However, his DHXS organized around CARE shifts his attention to signs of danger. “I will lose my business if I stop working”. We can imagine his FEAR & RAGE circuits being self stimulated by his mental model of his self as a “protector of the finances”. His potential to enter a self state associated with CARE is made less likely by the association of the instinct to CARE with his need to protect with by scanning for signs of danger. On the outside he looks mentally distracted and his communication with his nephew more incoherent and increasingly rigid as the nephew talks of what his uncle is missing out on. His body is literally in conflict between moving in line with his self or is brain. He has lost his trust in his instincts. The love of his nephew left unrequited.
In the adaptation I saw, the final Ghost appears as a skeleton upheld by the other two spirits of Christmas past, and present. A vivid depiction of our mortality and cautionary symbol for sure. Scrooge was anxious to “not end up dead, like Marley” as he saw the potential to belong in the lives of the poor, his loving nephew, and his beloved employee. I like to think the skeleton was a more charming affirmation of living life as if this was our last day to be alive. Accepting of our eventual death as if leaving our legacy before we have gone.
So there we have it. A biopsychosocial trip through A Christmas Carol. However, “straight the gate” or “narrow the scroll”, we can aim toward the light. Even when the odds favor the repetition engrained in the neural networks of our brain and the complicated webs of relationship we weave. There is hope that a connected self system can rise above the din of determinism and find a way out. Or maybe a way in. We might call Ebenezer Scrooge the “Father of False Dilemmas”. He reminds me of “Archie Bunker” from the 1970’s t.v. series, “All in the Family”. Its hard to paddle a kayak with a beer in your hand, stuck in a recliner, shouting out obscenities at everyone you love. I’m sure there is a female version of Archie as well. I hope this year we all find someone’s hand to take into a more hopeful adventure that re-connects us to ourselves and each other. Until then, “Bah, Humbug!” (click here to learn where Humbug comes from)