Being “Soulful”, Animal Training, and Finding Your Bottleneck

Ever since I had a conversation with Anna Salamon a few weeks about about “soulfulness”, my thoughts keep returning to the topic. I don’t have a great definition of what being soulful is, and I’d say that it probably lines up pretty well but not perfectly with most people’s intuitive definitions.

Anna explained it using a picture, which was helpful. I won’t try to replicate it here though, both because drawing pictures interrupts my flow significantly, and because I think I’ll personally get more value out of trying to use words.

I’ll take it for granted that humans have a bunch of subsystems. Insofar as this is just a metaphor, I’ve found it to be a very robust one. The subsystems don’t start out perfectly exchanging information–I can tell by observing my daughter that it takes a while for internal communication to come online. (For example, despite because physically able to clap, she seems so far unable to do so consciously. Whatever subsystem is hooked up with trying to make gestures for social reasons isn’t connected to the subsystem that moves her hands towards each other. On the other hand, she can point consciously.)

But, while communication doesn’t start out high bandwidth, that’s different from being actively blocked. That seems to happen to just about everyone, and it happens later. I’m a bit confused about how much of it happens when, but that point, while of practical importance to me, is not central to this argument.

I’ll give an example of what I mean by blocked. A classic example would be a person who gets the idea growing up that anger is bad. It’s destructive, harmful, and immoral to be angry. And, getting angry will get you cast out of the tribe.

The person may decide to disown his anger, even to the point of thinking that he never gets angry. In Jungian terms, the anger becomes part of the person’s “shadow”. 

The example about anger is a pretty broad one, but we develop all sorts of identities and ideas about what it is and isn’t okay to be, think, feel, and do. And, while these conceptions do have an effect on us, the effect isn’t (ever?) to actually eradicate the thing–it’s to cut ourselves off from it. If you’ve ever read about microexpressions, that’s relevant too. Just because we deny our anger, doesn’t mean it won’t flash across our face really quickly. We’re inhibiting it, but it is also, in some sense, still there.

The books I’ve been reading about dog training talk about some ideas that seem to fit right in. If you punish a dog for growling, the dog will stop growling. But modern trainers think this is an absolutely terrible idea, because it doesn’t eliminate the aggression, it just goes underground. Now you have a dog that won’t warn you before he bites.

If you punish a dog for chewing, he’ll chew in private. If you punish a dog for peeing in the house, he’ll do it where you are least likely to notice. And, while I haven’t been able to dig up a short quotation that gets at the heart of it, from reading Karen Pryor’s books about positive animal training, I’ve learned that she observes the clicker trained animals to be happier, friendlier, and have quite a different affect overall than the “traditionally” trained animals that have been subject to punishment-based regimes. They’re happier, friendly, more creative, and freer in their mannerisms, I think. I would say that these animals are more soulful.

In fact, I’d say that the descriptions of the animals suggest they are even more soulful than an untrained animal, because the training process has actually hooked up more parts of the animal’s mind.

By contrast, attempts at inhibition instead of redirection seem to fracture the mind in both humans and animals.

In a recent conversation with Anna and a few others, we talked about identifying our biggest bottlenecks to soulfulness. Since then, I’ve thought of a question that seems relevant and perhaps isomorphic. What is your most prevalent inhibitory process? And how can its function be replaced by something non-inhibitory. Or is its function basically outdated or inappropriate for many contexts in which it is currently active?