Adler and Siegel: Things persist for a purpose

Published November 2, 2021, The NASAP Newlsetter (Connections), by Erik Mansager, PhD

I’ve drawn the title for this issue’s column from an earlier presentation (Connections, March 2021) about similarities between Dan Siegel (Brain-iac) and Alfred Adler (Human-iac).

Siegel’s summary presentations of Interpersonal Neurobiology acknowledges that neuro-connections grow stronger once they happenstancially form in our prenatal and perinatal brains. Adler concurs that infants take information in as it presents itself to them – from within their bodies and from outside of them. They make sense of it only later when structures of the developing brain mature enough to evidence a developing mind. Infants start out only relatively open-to-experience. Siegel emphasises that we can continue a certain openness to form new pathways all our life. But that flexibility is not automatic, nor accessible to all, at the personal-growth level. Why not?

As I noted in the March column, what I think is missing in Siegel is clarifying that “purpose” is wired right into our neuro-connections. And openness is not the purpose of our movement. Rather the purpose of movement is to maintain our perception of the world as we discovered it as children. So our tried-and-true responses fit.

Like drops of rain that are randomly distributed on a window and develop into little rivulets that serve to channel the rain to the bottom of the window – so are the random firings of our infant neurons. As more experience develops, certain neural connections serve to transmit not only information of perception (wetness, pitter-pattering, odor, etc.) but also of what the infant eventually thinks about the sensations registered by the firing neuron net.

These perceptions are all implicitly registered in the infant brain with the help of the amygdala. This portion of the limbic system comes ready-to-fire at birth to help us be-wary when wariness is needed and thus to help our caregiver keep us alive. But the amygdala isn’t a reflective organ. Neither is the hippocampus for that matter.

But the hippocampus needs another 18-24 months to mature – before it can take the data our amygdalae has been tracking – and “organizes” into remembering. As our amygdala itself stores more and more data, thought also begins to develop and at some point – usually within our third year, but who knows for sure when – the budding of mind occurs simultaneously.

About this enigmatic point in time Adler and Siegel concur. Herein the personality patterns begin to develop in terms of preferences of perception, states of mind, and the like. We develop the capacity to go beyond taking-in-and-organizing information. Soon enough our preferences act as filters and we take-in-and-exclude preferentially. Adler called it biased apperception; Siegel explains in some detail the workings of neural integration being fundamental to self-organization.  This activity, by whatever name, is the basis for the earlier March comment, “When someone does something – or nothing – it’s not for no reason.”

Adler drew his conclusions that the early biasing of our perception accounts for our intentions to behave in patterned ways: to accomplish some purpose. From my perspective, it is unfortunate that Siegel uses intentionality (and its derivatives intentional and intentions) ambiguously. He and Adler both use it to describe portions of the developing preferential mind, but Siegel also uses it in a more conventional way as a synonym for mindful, or even deliberate. Adler typically uses intention to mean the somewhat unaware psychological movement of striving toward one’s fictional goal. Not “a goal” or “goals” but the fictional final goal.

And that is the difference and distinction between these two exquisitely thoughtful and mindful theorists/therapists. Adler put a name to the self-organizing tendency of the human person and rather precisely identified children’s third year as when they are capable of a conscious, felt-articulation (conviction?) of how the world works! And how they can operate in it, stimulated by their sense of littleness, to overcome any and all inferiority. Adler called this capacity at such a tender age, a “prototype” of the lifestyle. This seemed to mean it was definitely present yet still subject to refining – which could be activated in a socially interested direction or in a self-bounded direction.

What can still be considered Adler’s most original (and still unique) contribution to our healing field is conceiving of human movement as teleologically casting their security-seeking goal before them, and following after it faithfully, if unconsciously. Where does this leave the Humaniac-Brainiac alliance?

Siegel’s contribution conceptualizes therapy as the individual, in collaboration with the therapist, mindfully (he might add, “intentionally”) impacting one’s own neuro-connectivity with the aim of that individual freely acting in life rather than rigidly reacting – an ultimately reasserting the interpersonal nature of the individual.

Adler’s contribution conceptualizes the therapeutic relationship as mutually exploring the client’s nearly-unconscious-yet-intentional movement (lifestyles), revealing thereby their individual hidden goal; exposing the goal as the unify-er of the reactive lifestyle; and thus freeing them to revise their direction in life – ultimately toward joining and benefiting the larger community.