Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Unconscious 2



I remember many years ago reading John Henry Cardinal Newman, the great Victorian Roman Catholic theologian who wrote like an angel.  I was long captivated by his beautiful style of writing.  Anyway, the particular point I recall for my purposes here in his statement to the effect that "how we believe is as much a mystery as to how we remember." Where the quotation comes from in his huge body of work I cannot at this distance remember.  However, our brains even with its 100 billion neurons, cannot remember everything and so much of it is pushed into the background - as not being of much use to us in our daily activities - and can only later be recalled when we remember other related facts or situations.  To function in the day-to-day world of our senses we need to be conscious of only the more useful and more necessary facts.  The rest can be consigned to what Freud would have termed the "preconscious", just below the surface of the conscious mind as it were.

From my reading, it would seem, that Freud loved the metaphor of levels, a metaphor which he took from archaeology.  However, let me underline here and emphasise strongly that we should not take these terms to mean that such areas literally and concretely exist.  In trying to explain anything we humans find that our language is not capable of fully explicating a concern or issue or concept does, and must, of necessity, stretch itself to the limits by using metaphors.  Metaphors have always tripped up fundamentalists and literalists. One conception Freud had of the human mind or psyche was thus the working hypothesis or construct taken from archaeology, namely the three layers concept - The surface or Conscious Mind, the Preconscious Mind or that area of the Mind which contains everything we have experienced and learned over the course of our lives (we can retrieve a lot of the more recent information we have learned somewhat more easily than information from years ago.) and a deeper level or layer still, namely that of The Unconscious Mind with all those repressed and disturbing facts we do not wish to recall.  Freud, did, of course, use other images and metaphors for the psychic energies associated with the human mind, but these are beyond the scope of this present post.

I have just been reading a wonderful book on Freudian approach to the psyche (namely psychoanalysis) by Dr. Michael Kahn called aptly enough Basic Freud: Psychoanalytic Thought for the 21st Century (Basic Books, 2002)  I agree with Kahn and indeed with another famous psychoanalyst whom he quotes, Dr. Jonathan Lear, that much of Freud's basic intuitions about the nature of our unconscious mind have been sidelined because they contain facts we just don't like, realities, knowledge, feelings and fears we would rather not encounter or face squarely face to face.  In Kahn's words:  "Those of us interested in unconscious motivation suspect that another reason is that those academic authorities (who have sidelined Freud) find the theory of the unconscious unsettling." (Ibid., p. 2)

Let me return to my classroom experience of nigh on 30 years by way of elucidation here.  I have on many occasions in those thirty years witnessed pupils misbehaving.  I have often asked them why they behaved thus in the first place and often I have got the answer: "I don't know, sir."  In the beginning this answer used annoy me considerably, until finally I realised that maybe, yes, the student in question really did not consciously know why he was acting the way he was at all.  I have often witnessed over the years (thankfully not too often) students explode in anger at another of their number or at me myself.  Again, being a tolerably good teacher and a tolerably good psychologist or human being I have realised that these actions are not personally directed at me - I just happen to be a channel through which this angry energy is routed.  I have also luckily got to know and have been some little assistance to several angry young men over the years.  When the reasons for their angry outbursts were made conscious the anger was dealt with and disempowered greatly.  In other words, this is what psychoanalysis is for Freud, namely the making of unconscious motivation conscious.  I think Freud said somewhere or other that psychoanalysis was all about making the unconscious conscious.  Obviously many of the angrier and more disturbed students I have taught over the years could have done with psychotherapeutic or counselling interventions, but unfortunately these were not there and are not there.  Those I and other teachers like me, who have done courses in counselling and psychotherapy, have been a little helpful but on a very hit and miss basis as we are primarily and essentially teachers tethered to course work and classroom contact hours.  The provision of such services within our education system, I believe, is of paramount importance.  Perhaps that's the reason their are so many acts of violence, including murders, perpetrated by teenagers.

One of the images I love to use when I'm teaching class is the Iceberg Theory of the Psyche or Mind advanced by Freud.  I'm not so sure whether he used the actual iceberg image or metaphor himself or whether it was some later Freudian analyst, but it has always proved an effective image when I'm teaching Life Skills to 15 year olds and older.  There is a good graphic representation of this model of the psyche on the net and it can be accessed at this link here: Iceberg Model of the Mind : We can use the metaphor of an iceberg to help us in understanding Freud's topographical theory of the Mind to indicate graphically the following

  • Only 10% of an iceberg is visible (conscious) whereas the other 90% is beneath the water (preconscious and unconscious).

  • The Preconscious is allotted approximately 10% -15% whereas the Unconscious is allotted an overwhelming 75%-80%.

Kahn suggests that a lot of people find it "unsettling to have it suggested that our conscious minds are merely the tip of the iceberg and that the preponderance of our thoughts and feelings, and, above all, our motives, are hidden to us and sometimes neither benign nor innocent." (Op. cit., p. 3)


Above I have uploaded a picture of a lonely tree embattled by the winds on the west coast of Mayo. I took this picture while at Delphi a week or so ago!

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Unconscious 1



We humans have from time immemorial always feared the unknown.  I suppose to know something is very much to control it.  Hence, not to know something is very much to be controlled by that nebulous something or other.   The same is true, I believe, with regard to the illnesses that trouble us from time to time - when they remain undiagnosed they present us with greater fears as our mind can run riot with all types of terrible possibilities.  When our diseases are diagnosed, we can, to a greater or lesser extent, control them with medication or therapy and at least try to get our minds around whatever the diagnosis is.

The unknown conjures up all kinds of ghostly images, even weird and fearfully horrific ones.  Literature is replete with ghost stories, for example, the weird and wonderful tales told in Gothic literature from novels to tales to poems. This genre of literature got its name from the predilection of its authors with setting their stories in old ruined Gothic buildings like castles, monasteries and all types of old crumbling buildings with turrets, towers, dungeons and drawbridges.  Hence, it is easy to people these settings with ghosts of all types, skeletons, cobwebs, bats, ravens, tyrants, villains, madmen and madwomen, magicians, vampires, werewolves, monsters, demons, revenants and even the Devil himself

Needless to say, the Romantic poets found a wonderful quarry of characters and themes in this Gothic literature which by its very nature would appeal to the wonder of the Romantic imagination.  Hence, we get S.T. Coleridge writing his Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel, two wonderfully Gothic poems. Obviously, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) is decidedly Gothic character, though there are those literary critics and historians who argue that it is the very first example of science fiction writing.

Where does all the above fit in under my bold title?  This may be obvious or not depending on how clued in the reader is to what exactly our unconscious is.  Rather than write what follows as a continuous piece of prose I'll list some interesting comments, questions or jumping-off points to make the reader think and reflect a little on the mystery of the whole nature of the unconscious, if not of life itself.

(i) I have always been a subscriber to the limited power of our own finite mind, and consequently have been much convinced by Socrates' statement that if we should wish to progress our knowledge on any front we should always begin with a profession of our ignorance and from there proceed with methodic questioning to elucidate the truth.  Likewise, I have always loved Shakespeare's theory of knowledge which he puts into Hamlet's mouth in the eponymous play, namely, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." 

(ii) As science has long ago found out - there are more things in the universe than meet the naked eye.  From Copernicus to Galileo humankind learned to curb to some extent its hubris and cockiness - it could no longer claim that earth on which it had lived for countless millennia was the centre of our solar system, or of the then known universe.  If humankind had looked out to the universe, to the macrocosm, it also began to look down to the microcosm through the new instrument called the microscope.  Another universe, on a smaller scale, had now begun to open up.  Humankind began to see further and further and further out on the one hand (macrocosm) and deeper and deeper and deeper down on the other (microcosm).  There is always so much more than meets the naked eye.  If we cannot see it with the naked eye, are we really sure it exists? In answer to the question, "Is the invisible visible?" the discoverer of the X-Ray, Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen replied to his interviewer, "Not to the eye." (Indeed, with an electron microscope the observer interferes with what he is viewing as the electrons displace the particles viewed.  Obviously W.C.R's reply implies that we can "see" it in other ways.)  Other questions to ask would be: (a) is there always more to be discovered no matter how far out/up or in/down we go? (b) what if there is no more more?  

(iii) Then, there are the problems of human knowledge and human action and behaviour. I have read often in psychology books that we know more than we are consciously aware of

(iv) Over many years of teaching I have often asked misbehaving pupils why the did a specific bad action or misbehaviour.  More often than not they replied that they simply did not know.  At the beginning of my career this answer used to annoy me considerably.  However, as I grew in years and in experience, I began to realise that in all probability the miscreant did not know at all why he perpetrated a certain action.  I had begun to realise that many of our actions are indeed unpremeditated and totally unconscious.  People don't like to be told that their behaviours are often totally beyond their control. People like to think that they are "rational animals" as we learned in our philosophy.  However, had we read widely in philosophy we would realise that human beings are also "social animals" and "non-rational" and at times "totally irrational animals."  Factor in the other characteristics of the human animal and we have a truer and more whole picture of the human being.  It can be frightening to realise that we can be victims, if not puppets of unconscious forces.  Maybe, we are not at all as free as we might like to think we are?

(v) And so we are into a more shadowy world are we not?  The logical mind likes to get things very clear, cut and dried as it were.  However, the emotional mind can be very irrational at times. Things in this emotional world are rather unpredictable - a bit like the weather in fact!  Alas and alack there are shadows as well as light sources.  We often use Light to represent the rational and we often speak of the light of reason.  However, shine a light on an object and project it on a screen and you'll get both a shadow and a further one - I refer to the phenomena of umbra and penumbra here.  In the old Greek myths there was always the world of shadows called the Underworld.  The Underworld was thought to lie far beyond Oceanus or way beneath the earth, connected thereto by caves and rivers.  There were five rivers associated with the Underworld: (a) the River of Grief called Acheron, (b) the River of Wailing called Cocytus, (c) the River of Fire called Phlegethon, (d) the River of Hate called the Styx and finally (e) the River of Forgetfulness called Lethe. Charon, the ferryman brought souls in his boat to the Underworld of shadows, sometimes across the river Acheron and sometimes across the River Styx.  Passengers had to pay him with a coin which they carried in their mouths.

(vi) Then there is the whole phenomenon of dreams.  Our dream world becomes alive during during periods of REM sleep and there are many theories of what the nature of dreams or dreaming is and why we do so.  Some of these theories are outlandish and some downright contradictory to other theories.  Yet, the open-minded among us must be ever open to even the partial truths, however miniscule that be, of each theory in order to come up with a workable composite hypothesis.  It was through the analysis of dreams that Sigmund Freud proposed that we could discover and travel the veritable "Royal Road to the Unconscious."


Above I have uploaded a picture I took of the stump of an old tree, Newbridge House