THE PROBLEM WITH PROBLEMS
In summary, human social behavior can be viewed as
the articulation of a subsystem comprising the
individual and the group in which he participates
with the continual change pressed upon them by the
larger system in which they exist. Consequent to
the status of subsystem are
perturbations--problems whose origin is exogenous
to the subsystem--the unforeseen actions of an
unknown reality, the uncontrolled consequences
generated by our own actions touching off events
outside our ken. The key to survival on any level
in the system is prediction which makes effective
articulation possible. The key to prediction is
information--its use, change and increase.
Monitoring the fit between informational map and real territory implies a complex but descriptively simple process. Sufficient conservatism must be maintained in the process as not to risk loss of information and to make its use as efficient as possible (one need not examine inconsequential contradiction). But sufficient flexibility must be maintained as to make necessary changes not only possible but to functionally impel them (one shivers when cold, the reaction to temperature in excess of the comfortable range is not voluntary). This situation points to a kind of equilibrium range which, if exceeded, triggers response. Given an unrecognized perturbation throwing off articulation--given a problem--problem-solving strategy is a necessary response. Schizophrenia will be presented as a particular status or state in this problem-solving process. In effect, it is the way we work (or do not work) in certain experiential contexts.
Recent findings in neurophysiology research provide a useful foundation for modeling the problem-solving process. The various experiments summarized here give evidence of the neurophysiology in which such a problem-solving process must be grounded.
Stanley Schachter (1967) designed an experiment to measure the relationship between psychological and physiological hunger in obese and normal subjects. He found that while the two appeared together in the normal subjects, the obese subjects seemed to eat with not connection to their physiological condition. In another experiment, Schachter investigated the effect of cognitively blocking the process of labeling emotion and reports:
The linkage among emotion, cognition, and
situation are non-arbitrary but neither are they
automatic. Verbalized knowledge might be viewed as
a manifestation of the understood parameters
involved in causing an emotion while the emotion
itself is seen as stored, accumulated information
about previous situational relations with the
The relationship between emotion and cognition and the mechanisms of information retrieval is clarified by Kostandov’s (1975) modification of Chodorkoff’s (1952, 1954) investigation of word recognition. Kostandov replicated Chodorkoff’s findings of a differential in the length of time required to recognize emotionally “loaded” words and “neutral” words among psychotics. The research design used a screen on which words could be flashed for varying lengths of time. Two groups of words were used. One was related to problems in the individual’s life history (e.g., “thief”, “sex”). The other group contained neutral words of similar length (e.g., “throw”, “car”). The words were flashed on the screen for increasing lengths of time. The recognition time was found to vary such that the “loaded” words took consistently longer to identify than the neutral words. Kostandov then separately administered two drugs, one of which was the phenothiazine, chlorpromazine, frequently used in the treatment of schizophrenia. When the two groups of words were flashed again, it was observed that the recognition time for the two groups had equalized.
This finding would seem to imply (among other things) that emotional and cognitive access to stored information are effectively separable, in that they apparently operate independently in influencing the retrieval of information: when emotion is either blocked or held constant, recognition time becomes constant. Other experimental findings support this interpretation by showing either physiologically or chemically induced separation of function (Flynn 1967; Paré 1969; Norton 1969; Battig 1969; Brady 1970; Frankenhaeuser 1974; Sem-Jacobsen and Styri 1975).
Pribram (1967) presents evidence for another neurophysiological mechanism of information modification and augmentation. From a rather complex set of experiments with cats, he concludes that his data suggests “cerebral control over its own input” which is expressed in two opposing tendencies:
model has another important implication. It
provides a “place” for examining emotional
reactions. A capacity to replicate or model
situations irrespective of present context makes
possible the search of past situations and the
identification of factors assumed to be causal in
them. These causal factors can then be tested
against the present situation.
The utility of such a capacity can be seen as an analogue to natural selection. Rather than it being necessary for the species to adapt to changed conditions genetically (e.g., mosquitoes dying off until a resistant genetic configuration is arrived at), change can be based on the abstraction of the problem, isolation of the relevant determinants and the development of an appropriate response. In other words, when a response does not work, examination gives the capacity to rewrite the response without rewriting the genetic structure.
The “structure” of information storage in the individual which defines the fundamental characteristics of retrieval and processing (noted previously) can be visualized as a set of rules similar in flavor and function to the rewrite rules in a linguistic grammar operating on a three dimension matrix array (Chomsky 1965; Wall 1972; Perlmutter 1971).
In a matrix in which the cells denote the structured, total potential states of the system, only a subset of these potential reactions will obtain at any given point in time.
Cognition Figure 1. Hypothetical configuration at Time I
words, if the array is seen as having an on/off
position in each cell, a particular situation will
define a response configuration of activated and
unactivated cells. These matrix arrays “stack on
each other as they occur in time forming a three
dimensional array which will serve as a structural
description of memory. This “data cube” is what is
operated on to identify the patterns in experience
which are emotion and cognition.
Cognition Figure 2. Memory Array
The relationship between emotion and cognition is
a complex one. However, for the purposes of this
model, it can be assumed that each possible
reaction can be viewed as having an emotional
component and a cognitive component. Further, the
position of the reaction in the matrix implies
both the associated emotion and the associated
cognitive response whether it be correctly labeled
or not. The justification for this simplification
is contained in the finding presented above that
emotion and cognition appear to be two of the ways
in which experiences are indexed, recalled and
compared. A preliminary process in orienting for
response to a situation might be seen in comparing
the present configuration with past configurations
seeking essentially identical situations to inform
the selection of a behavioral alternative.
A central characteristic of this matching process is its predictive, essentially teleological, function. One outgrowth potential to it, is the development of rules to inform responses to particular situations and shortcut the search routine.
Such a system of rules can be compared to those of a linguistic grammar. A useful distinction might be drawn between the concept of a “context free” and a “context sensitive” grammar. A “context free” grammar has rules of the form a®b in which a situation “a” rewrites as “b” irrespective of contingencies external to “a” which modify the situation. A behavioral rule parallel to this type of construct might be, “Thou shalt not kill”. “Context sensitivity” introduces another index for particularizing the response to the characteristics of the situation itself: “Thou shalt not kill unless thou art in a war at which time it is okay”. In essence, it implies that more of the context must be adjudged in order to predict what is rewritten. A “context-free” rule, for example, might be in a form like “Thou shalt walk on the sunny side of the street”. While, “Walk on the sunny side of the street, unless: (1) you feel very hot; (2) your skin hurts from sunburn; (3) it is so cold the sun adds nothing to the walk; (4) you feel rushed; (5) you are in a bad mood; (6) you have just received photosensitizing ‘drops’ from the optometrist”, might be an example of a context-sensitive rule.
Adding the common theoretical stipulation that emotions are ranked on some sort of hedonistic continuum (1 being least and 8 most satisfactory), and letting X be the cognitive variable and Y the emotional variable in the coordinate system in Figure 1, the context-sensitive rule might look like:
for all XY
1. XY less than or equal to g4 g4 rewrites d2 therefore ~d
2. XY less than or equal to i3 i3 rewrites d1 therefore ~d
3. XY less than or equal to h4 h4 rewrites d2 therefore ~d
4. XY equals cY cY rewrites d1 therefore ~d
5. XY less than or equal to X3 X3 rewrites d1 therefore ~d
6. XY equals jY jY rewrites d1 therefore ~d
The general rule says that whatever the emotional
(Y) and cognitive (X) components of the situation,
rewrite X (the unspecified cognitive condition) as
d (the specific rule “Walk in the sun”) unless Y
(the general emotional state) is such that there
is some sort of interaction effect anticipated as
a result of previous experience. In rules 1, 2, 3
and 5 a threshold value is involved (e.g., rule 2
predicts that if you are in a bad mood, whatever
the cognitive component, worrying about walking in
the sun will make you feel worse (an increment of
-2). In rule 4, I decided to call ‘hurry’ a
cognitive state with potential association with a
range of emotional states; however, the state of
hurry controls the response. In rule 6, I decided
to let ‘drops’ define a specific cell with special
This hypothetical rule for walking in the sun provides an illustration of the functional organization of experiences. Except for rule 6 (photosensitizing drops) the rules make no claim to appreciate the causal determinants of the predicted reaction, the rules do not explain why one reacts to walking in the sun as one does, but rather, these rules organize previous experience for use in future contingencies by picking an element out of the situation which effectively controls the consequences by controlling a block of possible behavior.
Let me now briefly summarize the points that material is intended to illustrate before continuing. The Schachter experiments with hunger and electroshock show the interpretation of emotion and cognition to be non-automatic and confoundable. Similarly, Kostandov’s findings also suggest that memory has emotional and cognitive components and that they are separable. Pribram’s experiment adds a state which is independent of context--a place to think--by introducing the concept of cerebral control of input.
Based on these findings, a model of the organizational characteristics of psychic functioning was introduced which I shall now expand. The three-dimensional matrix presented was defined such that one axis offered the cognitive indexing of an experience, another the emotional (non-verbal) indexing, and the third presented a kind of “pack of cards” effect of these experiences stored over time and accessible to the present along the third axis.
This model was then viewed as a way to make information available for solving problems. A problem in the present situation defines a search of previous situations which offer information useful for its solution. The closer the characteristics of the previous experience to the present situation, the greater the amount of potentially relevant information it offers for solving the present problem. The separable aspect of emotional and cognitive indexing presents the possibility that a search can generate logically unrelated items. The emotional indexing makes it possible to jump from emotion to emotion along a row of the matrix rather than following a cognitive path or vice versa.
One hospitalized psychiatric patient interviewed, whom I will call Mr. Ronson, characteristically jumped from image to image as though they were linked in this way. For example, he made the following connection in a response I will consider later, “My family, couple of Romans, I experienced the same thing”. Similarly, this duality offers cognition the potential for ignoring emotional information, e.g., another subject, whom I will call Ms. Peters, chose to ignore the fear she chronically felt and behave as though she were not experiencing it. Both of these persons will be discussed more fully below.
Historicity plays a large role in defining the appreciation of an situation. The more experiences with a situation, the more referents and the greater the number of associations, rules and meanings surrounding it. It is through these experiences, associations, rules and meanings that the problem-solving process operates.
If the problem-solver finds a cognitive and emotional experience comparable to the present situation, that information is applied. If the information is not effective and the problem remains, the search continues. When the problem-solver finds no comparable total experience, the process moves into a second reaction. Assuming that there is no previous experience in which emotion and cognition appeared in this particular configuration but that neither emotion nor cognition is novel (i.e., that they have both occurred previously in some other configuration), the solution may involve the creative recombination of extant elements in a new way. For example, Ms. Peters, in learning to ignore her fear could be said to have redefined the cognitive interpretation of her experience. Mr. Ronson exhibited an even more “creative” recombination which will lead to the next stage.
During the period I interviewed Mr. Ronson, North Carolina experienced a fairly extended drought. Mr. Ronson was allowed to visit his family one weekend. He had made a bet with his son and had lost. He was paying his son when the first drops of rain fell. He commented that he “paid for the rain all across the state”. Here, I suspect that what Mr. Ronson was experiencing reflects a third possibility.
The third reaction is generated when either cognition or emotion or both are novel. In this situation, the problem solver “holds constant” the identified element (if any) in an attempt to find an explanation for its appearance with the novel element. For example, Mr. Ronson held the situation of the rain and paying his son constant and attempted to explain the emotion he felt by claiming responsibility for the rain.
There are, however, two potentialities for responding to novel experiences. In some cases, though the problem-solver does not have the knowledge himself, it is available through the information system by asking people, watching television, going to the doctor, etc. In essence, it is a question of finding a meaningful label.
In others, as perhaps in Mr. Ronson’s experience, such a label may not exist. Consequently, though the search for a solution to the problem continues, the success of the search is not guaranteed.
When a resolution is found a search boundary occurs. This boundary may imply a solution or simply that the problem loses its moment. A search boundary can be described as a return to the real context. The importance of such occasions of “reality testing” is obvious. One might think of “reality testing” as focusing outward (“participation” in Pribram’s terminology) as contrasted with the narrow beam inward focusing (“preparation”) of problem-solving. It involves the revision of the map used at the base situation (that at the time the problem was identified) to conform to the real present situation.
What discriminates the schizophrenic experience from normal experience? How might the search process be involved? What sort of reactions does a search contain that could contribute to the distinction?
In problem-solving theory a “search” is composed of episodes. An episode is defined as:
One might describe a problem as an alarm triggered
by a perturbation. The problem-solving search is
an attempt to solve the problem and turn of the
alarm. A distinction must be made between the
particular ‘episodes’ and what Newell and Simon
call the ‘problem-solving event’, which I will
simply call the ‘search’. a search is made up of
one or more episodes. The search may consist of
one try (episode) if the right tactic is chosen
the first time. Or the tactic may not solve the
problem, in which case an episode boundary occurs
and the problem-solver returns to the original
problem situation (Newell and Simon’s base
situation) to try another approach. When an
approach is successful, the problem is solved and
a search boundary occurs.
This process is elaborated in slightly different terms by Miller, Galanter and Pribram (1960) as summarized by Schoepfle, Topper and Fisher:
Both of these problem-solving models provide a
structure for considering a deceptively obvious
issue: What does a ‘search’ do? It solves a
problem and frees the problem-solver’s attention.
The models predict that when the problem-solver
succeeds he returns to the real situation. The
real situation becomes the focus of the present
perceptual context (what the individual
apprehends) without the distortion, selective
in-attention, and occlusion attendant to the
narrow, high focus of problem-solving.
However, in the discussion of TOTE, performing the operation and imagining performing the operation are equated. In most instances this equation is valid and one sees the ‘alarm’ turned off either by actively solving the problem or by knowing how and imagining its solution.
In schizophrenia, one encounters (as perhaps in Mr. Ronson’s example above) a third alternative wherein the individual can turn off the alarm without knowing how to solve the problem. In effect, the problem remains and the search continues when next the problem appears and another attempt is made to apply the imaginary resolution to the real situation..
But sometimes individuals encounter problems which their problem-solving routines do not solve and yet the problems seemingly continue to demand resolution. It is in this situation that the ‘real’ search boundaries are lost along with the revision function which normally occurs at such boundaries. It is also at this juncture that imaginary solutions are likely to enter full blown. The loss of these boundaries attenuates contact with the real situation such that the continuing search adheres to and distorts the perception of reality. An example of some of the possible consequences of an ‘unbounded’ search is afforded by Mr. Ronson who was interviewed in a local psychiatric hospital. Perhaps a more complete introduction to Mr. Ronson would be appropriate at this time.
Mr. Ronson is a 40-year-old, white, southern male. He is a large, powerful-looking man raised on a farm in eastern North Carolina. Mr. Ronson was brought up a Methodist and religion plays a large role in his thinking. He is married and has two sons who are 14 and 16. Mr. Ronson had been a social studies teacher in junior high school before developing schizophrenia. He is intelligent, well educated and occasionally (as will be seen) quite articulate. Mr. Ronson has been in and out of hospitals for over ten years. His illness follows the classic symptomatology of schizophrenia with a heavy salting of the patterns and compulsions associated with paranoia. However, the purpose of this section is not to present a clinical picture but to offer a position contrasting to the orthodox from which to interpret this material. Mr. Ronson made the following statements during the two interviews with him.
This atemporality is a dominant theme occurring in Mr. Ronson’s interviews and, obviously, a conscious concern. He is isolated from the reality in which time has meaning among the static memories which are the domain of the search [It must be noted that this feeling of atemporality was probably supported by the ward environment (cf. Rosenhan: 1973)].
This isolation permeates Mr. Ronson’s world view. Rather than progressing, he stands still as the world around him changes. He too wishes to go on but it is not clear to him how to go on or why he cannot. Death comes into may of his statements and perhaps becomes a symbol of both escape and going on. At the same time, Mr. Ronson also seems to identify a great deal with Christ.
An interesting contrast to Mr. Ronson is evident
in Ms. Peters whom I interviewed in another local
hospital. Ms. Peters’ experience was one of
powerful and apparently acontextual fear. She was
plagued by voices one of whom she identified as
the devil. Intermittently, she was wracked by
spasms of fear and guilt. This presented her with
some unusual problems. In Ms. Peters’ situation,
the feeling of threat becomes generalized because
if one accepts the ‘normal’ notion that fear is a
response to threat, then it follows
incontrovertibly that everything is threatening
because the fear appears in all situations. The
problem then becomes the discovery of the reason
for the fear and its resolution.
However, rather than taking this ‘strategy’, Ms. Peters ‘chose’ to accept but ignore the fear while attempting to find a way to control it. Consequently, she ingested the fear into her personality by redefining the interpretation of origin from exogenous to endogenous. Essentially, she came to deny the normal interpretation of fear and substituted the idea that her fear was somehow unreal. She attempted to ignore the fear when it arose and developed various behaviors which would prevent its activation, e.g., she constantly had a radio or record player on to drown out the voices. By denying the reality of the fear and learning to ignore and avoid its expression, she managed to remain lucid, rational and, for the most part, behaviorally normal. Consequently, though much of her experience was outside the normal she remained fluent and relatively functional in it.
What differentiates Mr. Ronson’s reaction from Ms. Peters’ or, more generally, why does he seem to be ‘more schizophrenic’ than she? In attempting to answer this question, it helps to focus on the nature or history of the ‘uncommon’ experiences.
There are four variables which are important indicators: first, chronicity--how long has the person experienced their expression; second, frequency--has their occurrence been continuous or intermittent; third, amplitude--how attention engaging or powerful are these experiences; fourth, distance--how ‘far’ are they from the common range, i.e., how bizarre and unusual are they.
In this comparison, Mr. Ronson’s condition was apparently attended by greater chronicity and frequency while amplitude and distance are harder to judge in this particular instance. Chronicity is the most obvious difference. Mr. Ronson had been in and out of hospitals for ten years. Ms. Peters had been in the hospital for less than a year. Frequency is also fairly easy to distinguish. Ms. Peters’ condition seems subject to periods of remission which Mr. Ronson does not enjoy. Distance and amplitude are more difficult to determine if only because Mr. Ronson has come to operate almost exclusively from the frame of his shifted range and consequently his verbalizations are to some extent specific to that experience and seem correspondingly unusual.
These latter two variables are more useful in extremely acute reactions where the shift in frame is rapid, severe and can be accompanied by symptoms rather like those of Mr. Ronson (cf. J.D Frank’s experiments on association change in drug reactions 1968, 1972, 1974). The difficulty in interpreting these two variables in this case is inherent in the shift in bias or attention which Mr. Ronson observes himself--”Well, somehow or other, I think I’ve been stretched to the point here that my equilibrium or my ego or my id or my superego has been overturned”. The critical difference between Mr. Ronson and Ms. Peters seems to be that the conditions he has experienced have forced active participation in his reactions while those she has experienced have not.
The shift in focus is not a voluntary decision. It is--for the most part--a processual reaction based on maintaining maximum flexibility in the system. One is where the information and the experience are. It may be that Mr. Ronson started his ‘illness’ with a response similar to Ms. Peters’; or, the onset may have been sufficiently acute as to make this impossible. However, it would seem that over the years, Mr. Ronson’s problem-solving response has found a combination of concepts which, if put together, resolves the problem (a sort of ‘present’ + ‘family’ + ‘death’ + ‘everybody’ equation). This equation gets worked though a great number of variations during the course of the interview. It may be that the process is attempting to find a combination which would change this internal resolution to an applied solution.
As the length of the search increases, the problem-solver uses more and more unusual search strategies (the common ones not having worked) and starts trying unusual tactics and combinations of information. The following was presented by Mr. Ronson with ‘machine-gun’ rapidity in response to a question about an experience he had been having.
The sense of being driven or pushed from idea to
idea encountered in Mr. Ronson seems to be a
consequence of a lack of predictive comprehension.
The situation does not allow use of the time and
energy conserving rules and pre-packaged analyses
described above. The self expects to react in a
predicted way but finds it does not react as
anticipated. Each situation demands a complete
re-analysis in order to try to get a grasp on
what’s going on. The carry-over of information
from situation to situation is systematically
reduced as the lack of predictive power of
previous interpretations is exposed.
In essence, the problem-solver is limited to a very busy appreciation of the surface of the moment. He does not have the time or the predictive control required to establish the layered conscious purposes drawn from previous experiences of the normally functioning ‘self’. In fact, the images jumped on often seem to have more historicity, power, depth and ‘personality’ than the surface self participating in the actual situation.
The reader may have noticed that the equation
mentioned above (‘present’ + ‘family’ + ‘death’ +
‘everybody’) is visible in examples 2, 4 and 5
above. Every time Mr. Ronson describes his own
present situation in the interview (e.g., “I’ve
been here the whole month of June), and episode
follows which ends in a more general attribution
(my wife and children and all are getting old too)
along with some connection with death (a lot of
people are passing out of here).
I suspect that the unknowing repetition of this episode implies that while it may resolve the problem that impels it, the episode is not a real solution. However, the imaginary solution does apparently provide a kind of closure which allows him to shift his attention to other concerns.
One can also see the episode as a response to the isolation Mr. Ronson must feel when he describes himself as going backward, being shot through with X rays, etc. Also, he apparently attempts to ground himself in the common range of experience as he chooses examples and images with which he is familiar and which he seemingly feels will be familiar to others. He most often chooses real examples but when he cannot find a real example, he approximates the affect involved by putting images together (“my family, couple of Romans, I experienced the same thing”).
These affect approximations make it possible for the dimensions and the ‘feel’ of a problem to be communicated before the problem itself is cognitively identified. By doing so, the problem-solver may enhance the probability that he will receive useful information from others. Hopefully, such information will then aid in the next attempt to cognitively formulate the feeling which is the problem and find a way to cope with both the problem and the uncontrolled problem-solving mechanisms which the problem set off.
In conclusion, these examples and discussions of temporal isolation, episodes, searches, the predictive self, driven response and affect approximation are intended to highlight aspects of the problem-solving process. This process, when activated, can either solve the problem that triggered it or become a problem itself. Schizophrenia is a reaction characteristic of this latter situation in Western society and in groups using the information system Western society has built up. It may be that a group which carries more accurate information concerning this process--what to expect and how to react--would effectively obviate some of the problems with problems.