“The Enneagram and Science” An article based on Elizabeth Wagele’s part of Conversation #28, February 2008, in the Enneagram Monthly.
The background to this article was that the participants in the Enneagram Monthly’s Conversation series had been discussing whether the Enneagram might profit from having the scientific method applied to it. In trying to bring the two sides together, Jack Labanauskas said, paraphrased, “Subjective impressions give a purpose for being, while objective facts allow the receptacle to exist which holds those impressions.” When it was my turn, I said that while Jack refers to our physical requirements as objective facts, subjective impressions can also be facts – the kinds of facts the social sciences deal with if they’ve been methodically collected with meticulous information-gathering techniques in large enough numbers, with the results carefully examined. Some people have trouble with the social sciences, however. When I brought home my sociology books as a freshman at the University of California, my father, a metallurgy professor there, looked them over and said, “Looks like a bunch of hog wash to me!” So I assumed there must be a schism between scientists like my father and the social “scientists” he was trying to make sure I didn’t fall in with. He really didn’t have to worry about me running with the wrong crowd, though, because I was majoring in music, something he had respect for. In the music department, we in composition snubbed our noses at those in musicology and vice versa. Factions—always factions.
I have an interest in exploring the possibilities of applying science to the Enneagram. I seek clarity and information and I understand those who want to present our system to others in a way that will assure them it holds water. It works for us, but that doesn’t always feel like enough when introducing it to newcomers. We would like reputable scientists to think enough of the Enneagram to take a serious interest in it. Several people have done graduate work on it and I’ve attended some scientific presentations at IEA conferences. I may talk about valuing the “human” side of life most of all, but I have the utmost respect the precision of the scientific method. Exposing parts of the Enneagram to rigorous scientific examination would be a welcome quest for the truth. At least two things need guarding against: that the scientific side might take over and wring something valuable out of the Enneagram and that whoever is in charge might do a sloppy job of it.
Most of us have some interest in knowing where our behavior comes from. Before going any further, though, we need to define what we’re talking about. To try to prove the validity of the entire ENNEAGRAM SYSTEM would be like applying the scientific method to something as complicated as you or me. It’s too much to consider right now. But comparing the nine separate personalities offers possibilities.
Behavior and Social Sciences
There are two kinds of knowledge that pertain to the nine types. One is the kind explored in the social sciences, as I said. The Isabel Briggs Myers Library Services at The Center for the Application of Psychological Type (the Myers-Briggs system) contains “the largest collection of books, dissertations and papers related to psychological type in the world.” Why can’t we do something comparable? For example, one topic could be how do people of each type react – or do they with consistency - when cars illegally pull in front of them as they’re trying to cross the street in a crosswalk? I am a Five-Observer in the Enneagram personality system. I used to behave in a self-righteous way in this situation, perhaps more like a typical Four-Romantic: I would feel incensed. I’d almost want the car to hit me so I could martyr myself. Now, I’m much more objective about it. I imagine how many times a similar event is being replicated all over the world and what I used to make a drama out of no longer upsets me very much (if the car doesn’t come too close). My Nine son says he first curses, then his compassion kicks in: “Oh this guy probably has something very important he is rushing to attend to – maybe a family crisis.” And he no longer feels angry. Well, an expert fact-gatherer would first make sure our types were accurate, then would categorize thousands of bits of information about this common occurrence. If the stories weren’t meticulously gathered and processed, of course, they would be worthless. I would love to know if there’s a consistency between the types… How do Eights react, for example? And Twos? And do the types typically change their reactions with age as I have?
Behavior and Physical Sciences
In my father’s brand of science, which includes chemistry and physics, the “scientific method” is used in a different way. There may be hundreds of people competing to find the answer to a hypothesis. In our case, one of the things we want to know is what biological factors contribute to behavior in support of the types. PubMed of the National Institute of Health, where this type of research can be found on the Internet (not specifically on the Enneagram types yet, however) has research papers on neurology and behavior. Nobel laureate Eric Kandel is coming out with a book, Principles of Neural Science, in August 20, 2008, in which he defines some of the latest in scientific understanding of the brain, the nervous system, and human behavior, among other things.Researching “The Happy Introvert,” I learned that introverts and extraverts have differences in some neurotransmitters, for example. So people who are introverts (any Enneagram type can be either introverted or extraverted, but introverts are most common among Fours, Fives, and Nines) will have differences in their brain chemistry from, say, extraverted Threes or Sevens. You can see from this that one day measurable Enneagram type differences will probably emerge. Certain kinds of aggressive genes have already been isolated and it’s not hard to imagine a paranoid gene, for example. Matching neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and others) with certain behaviors and characteristics has started, but this kind of knowledge is in its infancy. In time, I believe biology will answer some questions about what constitutes Enneaagram type.
Beginning at the Beginning
To make the leap from understanding biology as it pertains to our behavior and personality to quantum physics is interesting to think about, but it focuses on tiny things we can’t see that are both waves and particles. There is no history of experimenting on how it relates to the human personality and brains, as far as I know. There are thousands of people involved in the fields of neurology and human behavior with sophisticated backgrounds and experience in biology and microbiology, who have been spending their lives working on new imaging techniques, with EEGs and brain surgery, observing, working on difficult neurological problems, experimenting in laboratories, seeing what happens to patients when a part of the brain is severed and other parts take over, and so on. Information gathered from research of this nature in hundreds of universities and hospitals, using the scientific method, seems like the logical place to start, yet we haven’t even committed ourselves to any techniques for studying the Enneagram, neither in the biological sciences nor the social sciences. And now these fields are beginning to merge! In any case, I don’t understand focusing things like quantum physics instead of beginning at the beginning.
What to Do About It
The Enneagram is a sound system because it works. Those of us who profit from it don’t need to prove it scientifically to make it meaningful to us, but the Enneagram movement would gain from having scientific techniques applied to it. In science and medicine, there are many examples of things that work but nobody knows why. Do we need to wait for more information about the brain and/or collect more information about how the nine types behave? Or do we want to decide we are willing to learn what we can about the scientific basis – or not – of the Enneagram? We could start now by setting up a receptacle for collecting material and guidelines to follow.