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Allo-and-egocentric mental space

One of the things I’ve been working on for quite a long time now, is an attempt to draw some kind of a unified map, combining the different psychotherapeutic/coaching/self-development interventions. What do they do, specifically? How do we combine the various, often quite different techniques (among the ones which work) into an integrated system?

While there are numerous questions to be asked, one issue which I’ve found sorely ignored, and with a great potential is the allo-vs-egocentric division in spatial organisation. (There’s a visual primer here, if you find it useful.) More specifically, I would propose that some techniques used in psychotherapy etc. are based on modifying the allocentric representations, while others concentrate on modifying the egocentric representations. There is sufficient evidence in my opinion that the two systems occur simultaneously in memory and real world representation, so it’s most probable they occur in the same way in our internal representations.

(There’s a side question of whether we might have other, mixed categories, of both allo-and-egocentric representations and modification… While no clear idea comes to mind now, I can’t discard the option out of hand. Perhaps the distinction between allocentric locational and allocentric heading is worth paying attention to as well?)

The allocentric representations – representations where objects are judged in relation to one another, but not to ourselves  – would, for me, make a good fit for a vast majority of the visualization techniques.

We know that allocentric spatial representation is less demanding on processing power then egocentric representation (in fact, there are some suggestions that egocentric is built out of a fine grid of allocentric representations, although there are also neglect data supporting alternative explanations). It is also less demanding on actual physical actions – but also fairly independent of them.

Conversely, the egocentric spatial representation (objects relating mainly to us, being in front of us, behind us, etc) would seem to be a good fit for a lot of the embodied cognition techniques and issues, for example certain forms of metaphor work, certain Gestalt techniques, etc. This approach is, in general, less common in psychotherapy and similar fields, which might be one issue impacting their effectiveness. On the other hand, a lot of “common sense”, “real life” solutions might easily fall into this category, which would impact the distribution of clients who actually seek help in the first place. The very Lakoffian sounding recommendations we might hear everyday – “You should just get over her.” , “Leave it all behind you.” etc. would be good examples here.

Now, if this division is correct, we can expect there to be some issues which are typically allocentric, and some which are typically egocentric in their nature. The use of wrong solutions to specific issues would be one of the main reasons people get “stuck” with their problems.

It is an open question whether specific issues can be clearly divided between allo and egocentric, or if it is more of an individual issue with the specific person. Of the two I’d personally be closer to the second option. Or at least point that we would need to really reform our definitions of various issues in order to properly divide them into the allo/ego categories. So we’d have allocentric social phobia and egocentric social phobia, for example, possibly with different behavioral markers.

Looking into some of my (with a stretch) clinical experience, I do see a pattern of certain clients “stuck” in visualisation loops, trying to gain significant changes through doing really long hours of visualisation exercises. Even when such exercises have been proven to be effective in general (i.e. dissociation techniques), they seemed to gain little traction with these clients, despite really intensive attempts at them. When I look at what had worked with such clients, it was often using more egocentric-style techniques. I can also imagine why such people would prefer the allocentric techniques – they are, on multiple accounts, far easier and less draining cognitively, as is the whole allocentric system. Obviously, however, this is useless as data, so we’d actually need some decent research in this topic.

So far, we have very little. There is some research about spatial aspects of memory, obviously a lot about real-life space coding, some interesting studies about neglect and it’s different forms (we have both egocentric only neglect, allocentric only neglect, and ego+allocentric neglect), but (unless I am simply too dumb to put the right terms into pubmed), I could find not a scratch of research relating to the allo/egocentric perspectives in psychotherapy. So, at best, these musings are very, very early stage ideas. Overall they make sense – why should we only have one internal representation system if we have at least two in external representation and in memory? And if there are two semi-independent systems, they should have different impacts on our internal lives, etc. But this is just conjecture at this point.

Also, while I was writing this, I also came to wonder whether the distinction between “time-as-money” and “time-as-moving-object” metaphors, as suggested by Lakoff, might not have an allo/egocentric basis. This is something I’d need to look into, as it would make a huge impact on developing a proper “time-as-moving-object” organizing system (as opposed to all the available “time-as-money” organizing systems).