Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Reading :: The Nature of Human Conflicts

The Nature of Human Conflicts
By A.R. Luria

The link above goes to a current printing of the book, but I'm reviewing a 1960 copy. If you prefer to read on screen, you can get the same edition I read as a free PDF on marxists.org.

Luria, of course, was a member of Vygotsky's circle—but he pursued ingenious research even before Vygotsky. As a student at the Institute of Psychology in Moscow, he had access to a "dynamoscope," a device that measured pressure when the subject squeezed a pneumatic bulb, then recorded cyclograms on a photographic plate. (These experiments are discussed in Luria's biography.) What could one do with such a device in an institute dominated by Kornilov's reactology?

Quite a lot, it turns out. Luria wrote three books in the 1920s; this book was not published in the Soviet Union (it was published for the first time in Russian in 2002), but it was published in the US in 1932 and served as Luria's dissertation in 1937.

The book was written before (or at least based on Luria's work before) he met Vygotsky in 1924, leading to his engagement in cultural-historical research. But the work here has some clear continuity in the work of the Vygotsky Circle as well as Luria's later works. It's also rather troubling from an ethical point of view, but that's par for the course in Luria's earlier works.

First, let's discuss the basis for this book: the combined motor method (Ch.1). As mentioned, Luria had access to a dynamoscope. He had also studied the works of Freud and Jung, and was interested in word associations. And he was interested in how human behavior was organized and disorganized:
The chief problem of this investigation is to explain the laws of the disorganisation of human behaviour, the conditions under which they arise, and the way in which they are overcome. Therefore, we should study the structure of the disappearance and origin of this behaviour in those reactions entering into its real composition. (p.19)
How to put these together? Luria noted that strong affect often involved motor responses. (Think about, for instance, when people tremble in fear or anger.)
Certainly, the affect causes great fluctuations in the motor activity; if the affect is not accidentally related to the section of the human behaviour we are studying, if we consider the given disorganisation of behaviour to consist in the particularities of the systems of behaviour under investigation, then the disturbance will be involuntarily and definitely expressed in the sections of activity which we will record. We shall study the involuntary destruction of the voluntary movements; we consider this a more adequate path to a better understanding of the disorganisation of behaviour. (p.20)
So if "we desire to trace the structure of the internal changes which are inaccessible to direct observations, we can follow their reflection in the voluntary motor functions" (p.22). Luria's combined motor method involved having a subject create word associations while squeezing the bulb, therefore combining central and motor activities—allowing the concealed function to be reflected in the unconscious one (p.23).

Need an example? Suppose you have someone who is accused of murder. He has been brought in by the police, but he hasn't yet been told what he has been charged with. At this point, one might subject him to the experiment, reading a set of words that is mostly random, but including a few words related to the murder scene. Does the subject unconsciously squeeze the bulb more tightly when he hears those particular words? Yes, it turns out that he does (pp.29-30). Luria had essentially created a lie detector.

From our viewpoint in the US of the early 21st century, this experiment has severe ethical problems and would be impossible to conduct or publish. For one thing, when someone is arrested, they must (now) be told why they are being arrested. But in the Russia of the early 20th century, such considerations were not important. So I found this book to be alternately fascinating and horrifying. Luria's research subjects, who largely had no choice about their participation, included different groups who were experiencing high levels of affect:

  • people accused of murder (see above)
  • students who were about to discover whether they had been politically purged from the university
  • people who had been given complexes during hypnotism
Whereas the first two groups were experiencing stress already, the third group were artificially introduced to stress. The experimenter would hypnotize a subject, provide a scenario in which the subject acted in a shameful way, then bring the subject out of hypnosis and ask questions while having the subject squeeze the bulb. Here's one scenario:
The following situation is suggested (Situation B) : "You are sitting in your room and are studying. A child of your neighbour's, a boy of about six, comes into your room. He shouts and disturbs your studies. You ask him to stop; he does not listen to you. . . .You get angry, and forgetting yourself, take a stick and beat the boy, first on his back and then on his head. There are some wounds on his head and he cries. You feel very much ashamed and you do not understand how such a thing could have happened to you, how you could beat up a child, and you try to forget it." (p.144)
Luria matter-of-factly reports that this scenario sometimes failed to produce an internal conflict:
The situation is suggested to the subject. She reacts very vividly to the suggestion, shown by her facial expression. The suggestion is followed by these questions:
Experimenter: Why did you beat him?
Subject: He was bothering me.
Experimenter: Is it right to beat a child?
Subject: But if he annoys me.
At once it is seen that we succeeded in suggesting to the subject a certain situation. However, that situation did not appear to be conflicting. (p.144)
My reaction was that not only has Luria built a lie detector, he has built a sociopath detector. But Luria simply notes that some subjects don't have an internal conflict; let's move on to the others who do. He eagerly reports the more normal results, in which people indicate shame and horror over what they have been induced to think.

Moving on. In the third part of the book, Luria synthesizes his results.
One may think, however, that morphological conditions the connection of different motor systems with dissimilar parts of the nerve apparatus do not play a decided role here. During the affect, as a matter of fact, the gait may be changed as well as the movement of the hands in lighting a cigarette, and it can be shown that only the great differentiation of the motor systems of the hand or of the face is the cause of their unusual expressiveness. 
We take a different point of view; we believe that the degree of expressiveness of that or another system depends not so much on its anatomical position as upon its inclusion in one or another complicated psychological structure. Therefore one and the same motor system can be either expressive or unexpressive, depending upon what function it is fulfilling at the given moment and to what psychological structure it belongs. (p.172)
Here, Luria seems to gesture to the notion of functional systems that he would later develop.

At the end of the book, Luria cites his book with Vygotsky as well as work by others in the Vygotsky Circle (recall that this book was based on pre-Vygotsky experiments but published over a decade later). On the last page, he connects the book with the overall agenda of cultural-historical psychology:
The behaviour of the human adult is primarily a product of complex growth, which cannot be comprehended as an accumulation of experiences. Human psychology differs from the zoological point of view in that it sees specific laws absent in the phenomena of nature and characteristic of history. The development of the human as a historical subject occurs as the elaboration of special forms of historical, cultural behaviour. This development evokes new specific mechanisms, the peaks of historical evolution. Speech and the use of signs, the permutation of activity by the use of cultural means make the human a new biological series in history. These new functions do not remain isolated in the psychological processes, but permeate the whole activity and structure of behaviour so that we find them literally in every movement of the fingers. (p.428)
Overall, a fascinating, sometimes disturbing, but historically illuminating book.

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