Sunday, March 23, 2008

Primary Process and the Unconscious

This blog has become for me a way of not alone getting to grips with who I am or with my life project,  namely shaping my personality and owning it as a personal construct in as far as that is possible, but also it has become a way of coming to terms with some of Freud's ideas.  Whatever about those common criticisms of Freud like his preoccupation with reducing practically everything down to sexuality, his contention that dreams are essentially  wish fulfillment and that the unconscious is a virtual pathology rather than a quarry from which many creative influences originate, one simply cannot ignore his thought as it forms the very foundations on which any notion of psychoanalysis must be constructed.

To my mind he is a deep explorer of the human condition and over the next few posts I wish to explore this contention.  Also Freud was a wide and learned reader - in fact he quotes Gulliver's Travels by our own Jonathan Swift in his Interpretation of Dreams (1900) which I am reading at the moment.  I have not read far enough into it to write a good review, but I promise that I'll place one here in the next few weeks.  Added to this, I love the fact that he writes beautiful prose - in fact, he translates beautifully into English, which to me is a rare treat.  I have read both philosophy and theology translated from the German and it is not an aesthetic experience at all.  However, Freud's angelic prose makes up for previous disappointments.

Anyway, another of Freud's insights which I like is his contention that there are basically two processes going on in the human psyche - a "primary" and a "secondary" process.  As a practising psychoanalyst and a former neurologist he was scientifically trained to make educated observations of the working of the human mind.  These observations might not be rigidly scientific as we now understand the scientific method, but I would content that his observations were clinically sound.  I will describe these in reverse order. Conscious events obey what he called the laws of "secondary process."  This latter process describes the ordinary world of logic.  When I look around me I see the light at a pedestrian crossing turning red, a motorist stopping and then some pedestrians crossing.  Simply put, this is the world of cause and effect.  If I stub my toe off the foot of the bed I yell in pain etc. In other words events have occurred in an orderly process.  If my sixth year students at school study their Irish they will do well in their exams.

However, the "primary process" operates without regard at all for logic or for reality.  A strange form of logic rules there - a very, very "fuzzy logic" indeed.  There are no concepts like the syllogistic reasoning of Aristotle, no concept of mutual contradiction or mutual exclusion in this process. For example, we have animals that talk, humans with animal heads, animals with human heads in our dreams - dreams are very much part of this "primary process."   Another person's fear of cats and dogs may have all types of origins from fear of the sex act as a child to a sense of dirtiness associated with animals and many more reasons besides.  Deep in our unconscious its action or energy (my words) or process (Freud's) is mostly governed by the laws of what Freud calls the "primary process."  In the world of the unconscious and of the primary process different tenses are mixed up - dreams can go from past to present to future and back again and again with no eye at all to the logic of time.  This primary process is also at work in our everyday behaviours: - so, my friends expect me to love them even after they have insulted me.  My anger at my parents can be directed at say something as objective as the government's bad handling of the crisis in our hospitals.  My longing  for my comforting mother can become my craving for fancy foods - that is, comfort eating or comfort foods, call it what you wish.

if today I am a people pleaser who will do anything to please others and to have a quiet life well then maybe I still have a real and abiding fear of the my rejection by my parents all those years ago.  Likewise if I was afraid either they or God would punish me for bad thoughts or bad acts, the fear of that punishment or threatened punishment still remains in force even after my parents are long dead.

To finish this post, I will once again finish with a quotation from Dr Michael Kahn:

One of the goals of psychodynamic therapy is to take the important issues out of the realm of the primary process and into the realm of the secondary process.  If I begin therapy burdened by this fear, my therapist and I will be pleased if I learn (deeply) that there is no longer anything to fear, that there is no authority wanting to punish me.  (Basic Freud, p. 22)

Above I have uploaded a picture I took about 5 years ago in the Dunmore Cave, some 10km north of Kilkenny City.

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