Part One:  Promising Territory for Science

 

 



The Enneagram is by far the richest personality theory of which I am aware.  Like all personality theories, the Enneagram “puts people into boxes.”  But it does so only for the sake of descriptive convenience.  The experts in the field explain that the boxes are fuzzy, and they overlap.  But they overlap in a systematic, ordered way.

Moreover, the experts explain that all of the boxes represent merely different, complementary aspects of a single, core, human attribute.  The experts further show how unlimited variability exists within each box.  But this unlimited variability also follows specific patterns.

One of the most dramatic aspects of the Enneagram theory is that particular mental illnesses are explained as extreme forms of particular personality types.  That is, for each type (i.e. “personality box”), the Enneagram describes a continuum of health, the unhealthy end of which is a particular set of mental illnesses. 

This assertion of the Enneagram concerning mental illness is controversial.  If the assertion is true, it might well have a dramatic impact on the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.  Because of this alone, this book argues that brain research to test the validity of the Enneagram is compelled.

Three current, leading books on the Enneagram are:

·      Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery,” by Don Richard Riso and Ross Hudson (1996) (“Riso/Hudson”)

·      The Enneagram: Understanding Yourself and the Others in Your Life,” by Helen Palmer (1988) (“Palmer1”)

·      The Enneagram in Love and Work: Understanding Your Intimate & Business Relationships,” by Helen Palmer (1995) (“Palmer2”)

The Riso/Hudson book is rich in detail and structure, and quite thorough.  The Palmer books cover some of the same ground, and also include additional matter, but do so in a more fluid and conversational tone.  In addition, whereas Riso/Hudson is heavy on the authors’ analysis, the Palmer books seem less analytic, but closer to the actual words of regular people who serve as type examples.

The discussion here on the theory is drawn from these three books.  For an understanding of the full depth and breadth of the theory, I recommend reading those books.  But you don’t need to read those books to understand this book. This book analyzes certain key aspects of the theory, and argues that these aspects seem to provide hooks on which to hang a connection to neuroscience.  As well, these aspects should give you the flavor of the theory.


Chapter 1:     Enneagram Basics

The Enneagram is a big topic.  Some books on the subject run well into the hundreds of pages.  There are many different ways to approach the boatload of information that describes the Enneagram.

Most Enneagram books approach this information from the perspective of self-help.  That is, these books introduce the theory assuming that the reader is interested in personal growth.

As the Introduction stated, that is not the assumption of this book.  I am not expecting you to be engaged in self-discovery.  If that’s your sole interest, then I urge you to read the Enneagram books of the experts.  Among those books, I would recommend the Enneagram authors cited here.

This book is directed at the reader who is interested in learning if there is anything to these personality theories.  Are they just theories pulled out of thin air with no basis in science?  Or is any of these theories reflected in the sciences?  When it comes to human personality, the relevant science is neuroscience.

Now, if in addition to this interest, you are also interested in self-discovery, then we are now in the territory of bonus points. In this book, you are going to learn about some provocative brain research that seems to be revealing the biological foundation of spiritual growth.

Don’t get me wrong.  Most of the scientists doing this brain research seem oblivious to this effect of their research.  Their PhDs were not granted in the field of spiritual growth, nor do their research grants, books, or papers seem to mention spiritual growth. 

It seems that discovery of the biological foundation of spirituality will turn out to be one of those beautiful unintended side effects that actually benefits mankind.  It’s the reverse of the dynamic informing other scientific discoveries like DDT and Thalidomide (i.e. discoveries with disastrous unintended side effects).

This book aims to trace the nature of this beneficial unintended side effect.  But first things first.  Before we get there, I’ll have to start by boring you stiff.  That is, before this book can proceed any further, you’ll have to acquire a working knowledge of the Enneagram basics.  Without an understanding of these basics, little of this book may make much sense to you.  But you may find that learning these basics is boring to you. 

This chapter introduces the main concepts of the Enneagram.  This chapter is not geared toward your self-discovery.  Its purpose is one thing and one thing only: to set the table for the rest of the book.  In setting the table, this chapter simply steps through the concepts.  Standing alone, perhaps these concepts may not seem particularly gripping. The part that I submit is rather compelling follows once you have become comfortable with these concepts.

So, unless you are an insomniac and your current remedies aren’t working, don’t read this chapter when you’re settling down for bed.  With that, I give you Chapter 1.

The Nine Types

The fundamental principals of the Enneagram are that there are nine personality types, and that the personality of each of us is of one of the nine types.  In the usage of the Enneagram, these personality types are assigned numbers: One, Two, and so on, to Nine.

According to the theory, each of us harbors only one type of personality.  For example, if a person is a Five, the person is not also a Nine or a Two.  Also, if a person is a Five, he will be a Five from at least early childhood through the remainder of his life.

The next two chapters explore some details of this model. The purpose of this exploration is to demonstrate that the nines types can be described as nine different patterns of the following four mental states: optimism, pessimism, aware fear, and unaware fear. For example, toward the end of Chapter 3, you will see that an Eight can be described as [optimism, unaware fear], a Five as [optimism/pessimism, aware fear], and a Two as [pessimism, aware fear/unaware fear]. Don’t worry if these descriptions seem confusing right now. The next two chapters will hopefully clear things up.

Although this book relies on these mental state descriptions of the types, the Enneagram authors instead use common descriptive labels. The labels used by some leading authors are as follows:

Type

Riso/Hudson

Palmer 2

Two

The Helper

The Giver

Three

The Motivator

The Performer

Four

The Individualist

The Romantic

Five

The Investigator

The Observer

Six

The Loyalist

The Trooper

Seven

The Enthusiast

The Epicure

Eight

The Leader

The Boss

Nine

The Peacemaker

The Mediator

One

The Reformer

The Perfectionist

                                                  Enneagram Type Labels

Critics of the field say that these labels are too vague and ambiguous. I would agree with this criticism, but so would the Enneagram authors. These labels are meant to serve only as a starting point for understanding the theory.

Another criticism of these labels concerns their positive spin. In the culture of early 21st century America, most all of the labels in the above table seem to be complimentary, rather than pejorative. For example, if a person were to sincerely describe us as a “Leader” or “Observer” or “Giver”, most of us would feel complimented rather than insulted.

But these positive labels fall short because, as is explained toward the end of this chapter, the types differ only along the negative vector. That is, as the types acquire characteristics that are more and more negative, they become more and more different. Conversely, as they move toward the positive, they become more similar.  Accordingly, the more positive the labels, the more vague and indistinguishable the types. For example, one can easily imagine an Observing Leader who leads by Giving.

A more accurate set of labels for the types might look something like the following:

Type

Label

Two

Complaining Martyr

Three

Con Man

Four

Drama Queen

Five

Wallflower

Six

Coward

Seven

Flake

Eight

Bully

Nine

Lazy Bum

One

Prude

                                    More Accurate Enneagram Type Labels

These labels are more distinguishable. For example, it’s difficult to imagine a Bully, who is also a Complaining Martyr, but at the same time, a Wallflower.

Although negative labels like these may more accurately distinguish the types, the Enneagram authors don’t use them. I suspect one reason they don’t is that few would buy their books if they did. Although the Wizard of Oz had a lovable Cowardly Lion character, how many of us in present-day America would want to pick up a self-help book telling us that, at our core, we’re a Coward?

Another likely reason the authors don’t use these negative labels is that they seem like permanent judgments even though they’re not that at all. For most of us, those negative labels describe us only during our relatively rare worst moments. The rest of the time, most of us are just regular people trying to get by. But when pushed and pressed, the Enneagram theory says that we tend to follow the pattern of our own type. To others, that pattern looks a lot like one of the negative labels above.

Variability Within the Types

Though each of us is of only one type, this is not to say that all people of our type share the identical personality.  Within each type, there is infinite variability of specific personalities. 

One source of variability within a particular personality type is gender.  A female One will typically be quite different in many respects from a male One.  Another dimension of variability is culture.  A Korean Eight and an American Eight will probably seem rather different in personality.  Similarly, birth order likely affects the shades of personality.  A middle child Four, a single child Four, and a last-born Four may well seem different.

Given the popularity of the Enneagram, I would suspect that authors are currently writing about how gender, culture, and/or birth order provide variability within Enneagram type.  Other dimensions of variability are also probably being pursued.

Three variability factors addressed by the Riso/Hudson and the Palmer books are “security”, “wings”, and “development”. The next three subsections address these factors.

Security

“Security” concerns how our personalities shift during times of security, and times of insecurity.  A Seven who is feeling secure will seem quite different from a Seven who is feeling insecure.

According to the theory, when we are feeling secure, we “move into” a different particular personality type.  Similarly, when we are feeling insecure, we move into yet another particular personality type.  For example, when a Seven is feeling secure, the Seven moves to Five; when insecure, the Seven moves to One. 

“Moves to” does not mean “becomes”.  The Seven does not become a Five when secure. The Seven merely adopts Five-like attributes during these times.

This concept of “security” is captured in the symbol that is most popularly associated with the Enneagram.

Enneagram Symbol

In the diagram, the arrows represent the security “shifts”.  Moving in the direction of the arrow represents a shift due to a feeling of insecurity.  Note the arrow running from Seven to One.  Moving in the direction opposite to the direction of the arrow represents a shift due to a feeling of security.  Note the arrow running from Five to Seven.

Wings

 “Wings” refers to how a personality can straddle two types.  Riso/Hudson methodically lays out this aspect of the theory, describing how each personality type has two wings.  For example, Nine has wings of Eight and One.  A Nine-with-an-Eight-wing will seem consistently different in some significant respects from a Nine-with-a-One-wing. 

According to the theory, every individual Nine falls somewhere along a continuum ranging from Nine-with-an-Eight-wing, at one end, to Nine-with-a-One-wing, at the other end.  A Nine-with-an-Eight-wing is a Nine whose personality is infused with a number of Eight-like attributes.

A question arises whether an individual Nine can, at different moments, fall at different points along the continuum between Nine-with-an-Eight-wing to Nine-with-a-One-wing.  Riso/Hudson says that this is possible, but not common.  Although “there may be a number of individuals who are equally influenced by both wings,” “the vast majority of people that we have encountered have a dominant wing.” [43] 

The popular Enneagram symbol does not capture the concept of wings.  The following diagram attempts to do this.

Wings

Think of this diagram as a dartboard.  We could toss a dart at the board.  Wherever the dart lands, we have hit a particular personality type, with a particular wing, of particular dominance.  The personality type is defined by the particular “pie slice” in which the dart lands.  The direction and dominance of the wing is defined by how close the dart lands to an adjacent type.

Development

 “Development” is about the level of fear a person is experiencing.  At different levels of development, two different Eights can appear so different as to seem opposite. According to the theory, the levels of fear for each type range from extreme to none. 

The nature of the fear to which the Enneagram applies is both physical fear and ego fear. [1]  Ego fear is the fear of being disadvantaged, where that disadvantage does not impact physical survival.  Physical fear impacts physical survival.

For example, say you are driving on two-way street, and a car in the on-coming  lane suddenly swerves into your lane and bears down upon you at high speed.  If that happened, you would likely experience physical fear as evidenced by increased heart rate, and increased skin conductance.

Now say you are driving on a highway, and you are in a long line of cars crawling toward an exit.  Say further that you are stopped, and you take a moment to search for something in your glove box.  In the meantime, a space has opened up in front of you, and a car that didn’t wait in the long line merges into the exit lane directly ahead of you.  You lift your eyes to the road just as this other car is pulling in ahead of you.  If there was no physical danger in this situation, but you still felt upset, then this would likely be an instance of ego fear.

Although the Enneagram applies to both kinds of fear, the vast majority of expert analysis in the field is devoted to individual patterns of response to ego fear, rather than to physical fear. 

One possible reason why experts devote so little attention to physical fear is that physical fear complicates the issues.  Ego fear is something we can do without and, by definition, not impact our chances of physical survival.  In contrast, a person wholly without physical fear is not long for survival.  But how much physical fear is healthy?  In what circumstances?

The Enneagram experts do not address these questions.  Why?  Perhaps it’s because the answers to these questions are tricky and the experts already have a lot of ground to cover in their books. 

Or maybe the experts believe if that ego fear could be transcended, then these questions about physical fear would have obvious answers.  When should we respond with fear?  If we had only physical fear, but no ego fear, the answer would be trivial.  Answer: Whenever we feel fear.  How much fear?  Answer: Just as much fear as we feel.

As a matter of usage, Riso/Hudson use the term “health” to reference the levels of ego fear.  So a personality at a level of extreme ego fear would be called “unhealthy” in the Riso/Hudson framework.  Moderate ego fear is called “average health” and minimal ego fear is called “healthy”.  This book uses both terms – health and ego fear – interchangeably.

Because the Enneagram is a theory of both ego and physical fear, Riso/Hudson’s choice of the “health/unhealth” terminology is somewhat unfortunate for capturing the full breadth of the theory.  If the consideration is limited to ego fear, then the terminology is quite apt.  High ego fear is unhealthy; low ego fear is healthy. 

But the terminology does not work with physical fear.  Significant physical fear – including the corresponding autonomic responses – is probably a healthy response in life-threatening situations.  Nevertheless, this book will use the healthy/unhealthy terminology where appropriate.

The notion of healthy/unhealthy level of development is among the richest in the Enneagram.  At the levels of extreme ego fear, the Enneagram explains and predicts the pathologies that plague individuals and society.  Notably, the theory assigns different pathologies to different types. 

For example, while an Eight may have little chance of developing schizophrenia, or of experiencing suicidal depression, an extremely fearful Eight may well make the nightly news as a cheerful serial murderer.  Similarly, while an extremely fearful Five may hide from the world in his isolated cabin as a paranoid schizophrenic, the Five need not worry about the onset of multiple personality disorder.  If this aspect of the Enneagram is valid, the implications on treatment, not to mention insurance[2], are profound.

At the levels of extreme ego fear, the various personality types are quite different.  But at levels of no ego fear, the opposite is true.  This is the level of “self-actualization”.  At the level of self-actualization, the different personality types begin to merge into a single human type beyond the fears of ego.

As with wings, the popular Enneagram symbol does not capture development.  The  following diagram attempts to do this.

Development

Again, if this diagram is a dartboard, and we toss a dart at it, the position of the dart indicates the level of health.  The closer to the center, the healthier; the closer to the edge, the unhealthier.  The closer to the edge, the more different the types become.  At the extreme edges, where the grayscale turns black, lie the particular classes of mental illness associated with each type.  In the center, at the white dot, all types begin to merge into a single, self-actualized, human type.

Self-Actualization

The notion of self-actualization is the point at which the Enneagram begins to overlap with the theories of Abraham Maslow and that branch of psychology known humanistic psychology.  Under his personality theory, Mr. Maslow proposed that all humans were subject to the same hierarchy of five innate needs. In order, these needs are: (1) physiological needs (e.g. food, water); (2) safety and security needs; (3) belongingness and love needs; (4) self-esteem needs; and (5) self-actualization needs. 

Unlike the Enneagram, Mr. Maslow’s theory does not distinguish between different types of personalities.  All people are thought to progress through the same hierarchy of needs.

But like the Enneagram, Mr. Maslow’s theory presumes a single, most healthy state for all humans.  This state he called “self-actualization”.

Under Mr. Maslow’s theory, common characteristics of self-actualized people include: (a) more efficient perception of reality; (b) acceptance of self, others, and nature; (c) spontaneity, simplicity, and naturalness; (d) problem-centered; (e) detachment:: need for privacy; (f) autonomy: independence of culture and environment; (g) continued freshness of appreciation; (h) peak or mystic experiences; (i) social interest; (j) profound interpersonal relations; (k) democratic character structure; (l) discrimination between means and ends; (m) philosophical sense of humor; (n) creativeness; and (o) resistance to enculturation. [473-479]

The first element – “more efficient perception of reality” – matches the Enneagram’s take on illusion.  According to the Enneagram, the greater the level of ego fear, the thicker the filter of illusion for each type.  So at the healthiest level, the illusion filter is thinnest, and so the types experience the most efficient perception of reality.

According to Riso/Hudson’s version of the theory, the healthiest level is called “The Level of Liberation”.  Riso/Hudson describe this level as follows:

By confronting and surmounting the Basic Fear (which arose in early childhood in the process of ego development), the person becomes liberated and moves into a state of ego transcendence where he or she begins to actualize the essential self.   … In addition, particular spiritual capacities and virtues emerge, different for each type.  This is an ideal state, and the individual is at his or her healthiest, attaining balance and freedom. [465]

For each type, Riso/Hudson proposes the following behaviors and attitudes for each type:[3]

Two

loving unconditionally, altruistic

Three

authentic, inner-directed

Four

life-enhancing, life-embracing

Five

visionary, participating

Six

courageous, self-reliant

Seven

satisfied, appreciative

Eight

heroic, self-surrendering

Nine

indomitable, self-possessed

One

wise, accepting

 

Collectively, these healthiest Enneagram behaviors and attitudes dovetail nicely with Mr. Maslow’s observed characteristics of self-actualized people.

To the extent there exists a difference between the two, the difference is that, according to Riso/Hudson, consistent differences still exist among the types even at the level of self-actualization.  In contrast, under Mr. Maslow’s theory, the state of self-actualization is the same for all people.

This difference seems too fine to be relevant.  Certainly, perusing the Riso/Hudson list of behavior and attitudes, it becomes difficult to imagine how a person could harbor the behavior and attitudes of one self-actualized type, but not those of another.  If someone is courageous and self-reliant, would they not also be indomitable and self-possessed?  If the latter, would they not also be wise and accepting?  If so, why not also loving unconditionally and altruistic?  And so on.

Perhaps neuroscience can provide the answer.  Assuming we could even find two self-actualized people, researchers might be able to closely observe their brains, looking for appreciable differences.

A Doorway Into Science

The concept of development highlights a core aspect of the Enneagram that renders the theory appropriate for merging with science – neuroscience in particular.  Development proceeds along different levels of fear. 

This is the “single big box” into which the Enneagram puts the entire human race.  It is the big box of fear.

Both Riso/Hudson and Palmer2 make clear that each of the personality types is driven by a particular fear.  In fact, the core distinction between any two personality types is between the nature of the fear that defines each type.  Toward the end of the book, on page 470, in the Appendix, Riso/Hudson explains:

This fear is the fundamental insecurity that the type is trying to “solve” or at least repress.  There is one specific Basic Fear for each type ….  To a large degree, the Basic Fears are universal – we have all nine of them in us – but the Basic Fear for our own type is more powerful, more entrenched, and more responsible for most of our behavior ….  Often, a person will not be conscious of her Basic Fear, but will recognize some secondary fears layered over it more readily. … You can also see these Basic Fears as variations of a more central and pervasive fear found in all of the types – the fear of nonbeing, of not existing.  In a way, each Basic Fear can be viewed as a particular variation of this deeper, more general fear. (emphasis added)

In tying the theory to generic fear, and specifically, to unconscious fear, Riso/Hudson kicks the door wide open into neuroscience.  In characterizing this generic fear as being one of “not existing” (read: “survival”), Riso/Hudson leaves a hanging curveball for evolutionary psychology.

But after building up this anticipation, Riso/Hudson ends pretty much right there, saying nothing further on the subject of science.


 



[1] ## see later discussion of basic fears – survival fears

[2] For exmple, the costs of disability insurance for a Five would be cheap for disabilities resulting from multiple personality disorder, but much more expensive for disabilities resulting from schizophrenia.

[3] When this book lists the types, the list begins with the Two rather than the One. This choice was made because that is how Riso/Hudson approaches the types. In Chapter 3, you’ll see that this approach is a natural one.