Exploring the MBTI and Myers Briggs Personality Types and applications | Personality Pathways

Questions, Quandaries, and Queries about Personality Type with Lenore Thomson

Are Carl Jung's mental functions like abilities or skills?

Lenore Thomson Bentz . . . on Personality Type - Volume 1, No. 2.

Have a question about Personality Type or Carl Jung's Theory of Psychological Type? Send them to Lenore at lthombentz@aol.com. She will respond in this ongoing "Dear Lenore" column.

Questions Addressed in this issue:

Am I an unconventional Type?
Are Jung's mental functions like abilities or skills? [this page]
What did Jung mean by "individuation?

Question: In your last column, you maintained that differentiation doesn't mean gaining control over the skills a function offers. Can you say more about that? For example, doesn't it make sense for a Feeling type to take a course in math or something to learn more Thinking skills? -- Jim M., Altoona, Pa.

Lenore Answers: As I said last time, acquiring new skills has no downside. It's healthy, and it makes us more adaptive. My quarrel is with the idea (1) that the functions are abilities or intelligences that can be acquired by deliberately engaging in particular behaviors, and (2) that doing this sort of thing is what Jung meant by individuation. Jung described the functions not as skills, but as psychic modalities, or orientations.

An orientation doesn't have content. It has direction. When we're oriented, we're locating ourselves in a specific environment with respect to time, place, and people. Once oriented, we interpret our events and experiences so that they're unified with what we already know and believe to be true and important.

Humans don't have enough genes to come into the world with an established orientation to life. Our genes simply give our brain what it needs to interact with the world, and orientation develops in terms of that interaction. The very second we emerge from the womb, neural networks are forming to make sense of what we're experiencing.

Temperament, of course, plays its part in this process, but the functions are not temperament's handmaidens, attempting to meet innately determined needs. Rather, the functions are generic ways in which our neural networks take shape. They're something like diplomats, traveling between the so-called old brain, which we share with other sentient beings, and the new one, which enables us to prioritize, consider options, and come up with solutions to perceived problems.

In our hominoid ancestors, the old brain was the primary seat of decision-making -- emotion, memory formation, instinctual drives, fight-or-flight reactions, hunger, thirst, temperature, joy, rage, crying, pleasure. Our new cognitive brain sits atop that old one and is working in tandem with it. The functions, so to speak, are four ways of bridging the gap between old brain and new. That is, the functions bring our emotional and instinctual reactions to the attention of the cognitive mind, converting them into mental representations that can be consciously manipulated.

To put this on firmer neurological grounds, serotonin is the neurotransmitter that gives the frontal lobes of the brain enough time to cognitively represent our natural responses to life, so we can integrate them with goals as they exist in our particular cultural setting. When we differentiate a function, we're establishing a consistent way of cognitive representation, which gives us willful control over the brain states that we're representing to ourselves. The outcome is our ability to divert our instinctual and emotional energies into activities that matter to us.

Type preference, in this respect, is not tantamount to doing what comes naturally. It's tantamount, rather, to establishing an ego-identity, giving one access to the social, cultural, and aesthetic traditions that make the human project possible. When we differentiate a function, we aren't developing our talents and abilities; we're favoring those talents and abilities by narrowing our scope of interpretive activity to representations that will support them. Ultimately, this organizes our mental categories, so that they continue to define what we see in a selective way.

It may come as a surprise that Jung describes a differentiated function not as the outcome of natural predisposition, but as a wound in the psyche -- the place where we've split ourselves off from nature for the sake of a socially recognizable identity. That identity is necessary, particularly in the first half of life, because it enables us to love and to work in an existing community environment. A differentiated function becomes a channel for our instinctual energies, permitting us to invest them in activities that have cultural meaning and value.

Type preference, from this perspective, doesn't describe our natural state, but, rather, our ability to transcend reality, to shape it according to our aspirations, beliefs, and ambitions in a specifically human culture.

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Next Page - Carl Jung's Idea of Individuation

Lenore Thomson is author of "Personality Type: An Owner’s Manual" and the former editor of the Jungian Journal Quadrant and a lecturer with the C.G. Jung Foundation in New York City.

Lenore Thomson Personality Type an Owner's Manual
"Personality Type: An Owner's Manual" by Lenore Thomson

A layman's guide to understanding Personality Type and the theory of Psychological Types originally proposed by C. G. Jung. Lenore Thomson was the former editor of the Jungian Journal Quadrant and a lecturer with the C.G. Jung Foundation in New York City.
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