Essay originally written to explain to my therapist what I meant by mental coherence, and to explain how deficiencies in it can undermine essential aspects of life. He labelled it Weak Central Coherence.
Many of the issue described below are not that extreme anymore (and weren’t when I wrote the essay) – it is largely retrospective and describes worst case scenarios. However, the issues with weak mental coherence persist, albeit now in milder, subtler versions.
Coherence across time
Relevant for social understanding and communication, identity, learning from experiences, mood regulation, planning, punctuality and sense of meaning.
It is essential to understand that peoples’ feelings and actions are linked across time in order roughly grasp their personalities/values/preferences etc and make some sense of their behaviours. To consider that peoples’ moods and behaviours in different situations and across different points in time are part of patterns (not just sudden random events) and linked with many different factors; some which are present in the current situation and serve as triggers, and many other complex factors which are “invisible” in the current situation.
Without a grasp of that coherence, people tend to appear extremely shifty and unpredictable, and communication is like “fumbling in the darkness” without much sense of what is appropriate to say and do and what isn’t, due to not being able to forecast others’ reactions at all. That leads to high tension and high anxiety around people.
For example: if I don’t consider that a person’s attitude and reactions to me in this moment link up with past events (the person’s past experience with me + experiences unrelated to me, which I can’t know anything about); then I’ll assume that all behaviour is caused by something present “right now” and that I should be able to see what it is and adjust my behaviour accordingly. When I can’t see those factors, then I’ll be hyper-vigilant to a lot of different factors without knowing what I should focus on.
If I experience again and again that I fail socially (eg people avoid me, ignore what I say or express dissatisfaction with my behaviour et.c.) and I can’t identify the problem causes (looking for them in the current situation) then I’ll feel socially incompetent and think that people are shifty, mysterious, and impossible to understand, or deliberately try to shun me out and confuse me by hiding whatever the reasons are for their behaviours.
I may perceive persons like they are having different personalities present in different moments rather than one personality spanning many facets if I don’t connect their behaviours and expressions across time (emotionally responding to peoples’ moods as if they were different persons).
Grasping the overall pattern of a person’s behaviour – across time and across different situation (and towards different people) and be able to make sense it, is also important for being able to detect bullies’ games and patterns of gossip et.c. which can then maybe be addressed before it is too late.
Other symptoms of lack of coherence across time:
Moodiness and impulsive behaviour: if I don’t perceive my own feelings and behaviours as a connected whole across time, then I’ll have a similar problem with relating with myself: my moods will seem unpredictable and inexplicable, like weather, and the mood of the moment is like an isolated island; and therefore much more intense than if it was seen as just a part of the bigger picture of “being me”. Reactions can’t be delayed, because each moment is sort of its own reality and needs to be settled in the present.
Failure to learn from experiences: It is difficult to learn from experiences when different moments are not emotionally connected, because experiences from other times and situations feel “irrelevant” to the current moment, like far away (this is not the only reason, but can contribute to failure to learn from experiences).
Planning: it is difficult to plan when the past, present & future doesn’t feel like it is connected.
Tardiness: it is difficult to be motivated to hurry when the present doesn’t feel like it is connected to the future (where I will be late); almost like those moments are separate worlds.
Everyday structure: the tendency to forget about everything that is not “now” and be absorbed in a present task tends to lead to most everyday duties being overlooked and if not kept in check with routines and systems, can lead to chaos and break-down of structures like sleeping habits, remembering to eat properly, cleaning, grooming et.c.
The benefit of the tendency to disconnection is stress-reduction. Stress and anxiety is kept in “silos”. When I leave a stressful moment behind, then the stress stays in that moment and does not follow me into the present; it is emotionally abandoned (typically) as if it is already long ago. When I know that I will be at work in 2 hours and it will be highly stressful, then I am not stressed, because that future moment feels like it is a completely different world that does not have much to do with my present reality.
I gradually started to realise the problem with lack of coherence long ago (in my 20s) and while I was not able to formulate it in words, worked on teaching myself to factor in the context all the time; rather than respond impulsively to whatever happens in the moment as if that is all that exists.
What has probably helped most in regard to social understanding (that people are coherent across time but adapting to different contexts) was to develop some long term relations where I actually got to observe and interact with the same persons over a long period of time – including:
- my dad’s wife
- my youngest brothers while they were growing up
- to be a part of that household for a long period of time
- my old dog (super social & relational)
- my old psychiatrist
- farm roles… although most were problematic each did span from months to years
- several old boyfriends
- and latest my husband, who is the longest relationship of them all.
The change is so big on the social area that according to my dad’s wife I am “no longer the same person” (nonsense – but I get the point).
Another fundamental change: moodiness, impulsiveness. It started in the teenage years and lasted well through the 20s but is not a problem anymore, apart from occasional depressions (earlier: frequent, extremely heavy depressions and probably dysthymia).
The 2 essential areas mentioned above – social understanding and emotional stability – are the most essential ones, and have improved strongly. The others not so much.
Coherence across parts
Relevant for conversations.
When talking with a person, it is important to perceive all parts of the person’s communication as one coherent whole.
Verbal coherence: it is important to not relate to one sentence at the time, but instead see each as just a link in the overall conversation. Too much speculation about the meaning of individual words or sentences can quickly ruin the overall point of what the person tries to say.
Non-verbal coherence – Moves: people tend to make a myriad of movements as part of their communication, e.g. hand movements, face expressions, eye movements, walking around, changing position et.c. It is important to resist the temptation to focus on any single movement pattern and try to make sense of individual expressions, because that will divert all the attention to that single aspect, cause tension and make it hard to relate with the person and the conversation overall.
Non-verbal coherence – Parts: it is important to perceive a person’s face as a coherent whole and not focus too much on individual features like eyes, nose, mouth et.c. because that makes it difficult to make sense of face expressions and relate with the person and the conversation overall.
(These issues used to cause extremely high tension & awkwardness in attempted conversations. Now tension & confusion due to overfocusing on parts/aspects still derail conversations some of the time, but I don’t think it is visible / not sure if people can sense it because I can usually keep the conversations going and don’t get too tense)
Relevant for orientation, driving et.c.
Most people seem to feel that it should be easy to find the way back home from any place once finding the way to get there. I don’t think so, because e.g. when driving somewhere, the road and the landmarks tend to look totally different from the two opposite angles (out & home), and all the turns are opposite (rights VS left), plus there may even be variation of parts of the route itself (e.g. one way streets).
The same applies to finding the way around inside big buildings (e.g. a school, university or hospital) plus in that situation there is also disorientation due to an overwhelming amount of stimuli and angles et.c.
With road directions, I used to feel like out & home was one long stretch in one direction rather than out & return the same way. Although I did learn to find the way to places I went often (like work) using landmarks, I kept the sense that it was all a drive in one direction only, which felt confusing/unsettling due to being illogical. Then I decided to do something about it, and began to force myself to “merge” turns and major landmarks on the way out & home every day. So when I turn right on the way home, then I force myself to remember the opposite turn – left, “merging” that point on the out & home route in my mind.
I do the same with landmarks: I pay attention to how they look from both directions – out & home – and then merge those two images in my mind to force myself to acknowledge that it is the same place just seen from two sides. It was/is uncomfortable initially (feels wrong), but it works, and after doing it a few times it “settles”, and then it feels much better every time I drive the route; the route is logical. The “merging” procedure is increasingly becoming a habit I don’t need to use force to get myself to do, and I have become much better at finding the way to places and having an idea of the location of places during the last year (prob. also due to a lot of practice because of my work).
I have tried to do the same to find the way inside major buildings too, with some but limited success so far. but then I have additional tricks to use in that situation (as discussed last time).
Relevant for accessing memories, self-understanding, depression and learning from experiences.
It is often difficult to remember feelings I don’t have right now, so e.g. if I am happy now then I can’t really remember how it felt to be depressed a month ago, and understand the thoughts I had at the time, because my feelings are no longer in that category of feelings. It is as if my thinking takes place inside a silo, and it is difficult to access other silos quickly to draw out thoughts, feelings and experiences that “don’t fit the context”.
Pain: if I was in strong pain the day before and I am not anymore, then the relief makes me feel good = a different category of feelings from pain, and I find it hard to imagine the pain and don’t think it was that bad after all, and doubt that I really was not able to work or do things I should have done the day before, because I’m feeling OK…
Parties: when I was young and almost every social interaction was a failure, especially attempts at joining parties, dinners or similar, then I would often blame & loathe myself for failing and leaving early, or not leaving early but behave like I was socially inept, feeling that I could sure do better than that and not remembering outside of the situation how difficult it was.
While in the difficult situation, I experienced the mix of my own communication difficulties, peoples’ attitudes, cliques, massive sensory overload as overwhelming and felt socialising properly was impossible; I was in survival mode and after a while didn’t care about anything, I just had to get out and stop suffering. However, afterwards I did no longer relate to how it felt, and therefore could not imagine that I could not do better; so I kept exposing myself to the same impossible situations over and over and ended up depressed and self-loathing with no gains from forcing myself to go.
Shopping malls: I often can’t fully imagine how bad it feels to be inside a shopping mall until I’m there – then I can’t understand how I could forget, because it is exactly as bad as last time, and has a similar impact on the rest of the day. So I only remember all the other times while I am in the situation and it feels similar; because then I am in the “shopping mall silo” with access to all the shopping mall-memories. As soon as I recover from the experience, however, the memories are vague and don’t seem important for predicting future shopping mall-visits (hopefully none!)
The same tendency can cause me to take on tasks I can’t handle, jobs I am a poor fit for, go into situations that scared me in the past, say things that I know may be provocative but which I feel are important, because I don’t feel like others’ potential negative reaction can be such a big problem (it can!).
The benefit of the emotional “forgetfulness” is of course reduced anxiety: although a situation will predictably be bad, I rarely experience much anxiety in advance, because I can’t imagine what it will feel like, so I think it will probably be OK – even when experience tells me it will most likely not.
Likewise, it is easy to forget bad experiences and “wipe the board clean” and feel confident it will be OK, even when I have to face the same situation again.
(The “memory loss” is mostly emotional, not so much intellectual although it is on some points)
Slightly edited to improve clarity and format and fix grammar glitches;-:) A few personal references have also been removed.