Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Seriously, the "Unconscious Mind" is a Myth

Modern magicians make extensive use of psychoanalytic terminology. When browsing articles on esotericism one commonly finds references to terms like ego, subconscious, and unconscious as though they represent some kind of bridge between spiritual and scientific understanding. However, the problem with this perspective is that there is nothing scientific about psychoanalysis. The adoption of psychoanalytic concepts in explaining magical ideas does not unify magick and experimental psychology in any way, but instead merely relates one system or esoteric symbolism and terminology to another. Furthermore, modern experimental psychology has uncovered many problems with the psychoanalytic model, and we as magical practitioners would do well to avoid incorporating those erroneous ideas into our practices.

Sigmund Freud developed the classical psychoanalytic model. This model was later refined and revised by Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Wilhelm Reich, and a number of other psychologists who explored variants of the Freudian system. Regardless of the shortcomings of Freud's model, both psychologists and psychiatric patients owe him an enormous debt for his role in completely reforming the treatment of mental illness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Freud's key insight was that it was possible to treat the mentally ill using talk therapy. This insight alone was so significant because of what it replaced. Before Freud psychiatric institutions were more like prisons where patients lived under terrible conditions and were subjected to "treatments" like being sprayed with high-power hoses to "purify" their bodies of imaginary toxins.

When it was first introduced psychoanalysis seemed incredibly effective, and Freud rapidly became a celebrity of his day. In addition to his clinical successes he also published several popular books explaining his theories and models. Many Freudian ideas and terms entered into the popular culture - Freudian slip, Oedipal, repression, complex, defense mechanism, and so forth. Most of these are still with us today. What has only been realized more recently is that Freud's success rate only looked impressive because of how terrible treatments for mental illness were before the advent of talk therapy. Controlled experiments have shown that the success rate for psychoanalysis over the course of one year, an impressive-sounding 70%, is no different than that for "sham therapy" in which a patient meets the same number of times with an untrained person and simply talks with them.

It shouldn't be all that surprising that Freud's model of the mind is inaccurate. It was one of the first models of its kind ever proposed and the science of psychology allows us to continually refine our understanding of the mind. Thus one would expect a more modern model to explain observations better and in a more complete manner. By incorporating ideas from behaviorism and neuroscience, modern cognitive-behavioral therapy is the only form of talk therapy that has ever been capable of exceeding the 70% threshold in controlled experiments, averaging out around 80% or so. This suggests that the cognitive-behavioral model of the mind simply works better than what Freud proposed, and its effectiveness under clinical conditions is quite impressive.

The fundamental weakness of Freud's model is the idea of the unconscious mind and how it supposedly works, and this is an idea that has infected much of magical practice. Freud originally got the idea based on his observations of memory in patients under hypnosis, who seemed to be able to recall all sort of details that they were unable to perceive in their waking state. He concluded that once a memory is stored it must always be present, and that the reason we cannot remember whatever we want is that the active process of repression prevents this from occuring. The problem is the Freud never checked his patients hypnotic recall against factual data. We now know that under hypnosis people can seem to recall small details, but in fact many of these details are made up because the original memory is no longer present. This is the reason that hypnosis is now allowed as evidence in criminal trials - in the 1970's it was tried, but was often found to contradict the facts.

Actually memory and personal identity are much more fluid than we generally believe and much more fluid than the psychoanalytic schools teach. Neuroscientists have discovered that every time we think about a particular memory we rewrite it into the brain. This process changes the memory subtly, which most of us fail to realize. It's like a game of telephone - every time you remember something it's like passing it to the next person in line. Scientists have even had some success with a drug that can erase traumatic memories by exploiting this process. This flies in the face of the Freudian model, in which not thinking about things from your past is pathological because the repression mechanism must hold these memories at bay. In fact, if you just don't think about a memory for a long time it fades, and that's all it does. Furthermore, everything that depends upon the repression mechanism must be similarly rejected. You don't have an unconscious mind with its own desires, personality, and so forth, and there are no hidden thoughts floating around in your mind that need to be "processed" or "defused" or "analyzed." What you think is actually what you think. Full stop.

So how do we then explain actions and feelings that are inappropriate or out of place? Everyone has had the experience of doing something that they immediately regret, a behavior that they know they should never engage in and yet there it is. These things happen because the mind is actually made up of three distinct systems, each of which can operate independently. The first of these is the system that we use for what we normally consider thinking and reasoning. It corresponds to the neocortex and particularly the frontal lobes of the brain. The second is the emotive system that produces our feelings, corresponding to the limbic cortex. The third is the conditioning system, which follows the rules of classical and operant conditioning. Conditioning can happen all over the brain, but complex behaviors often correspond to assimilated patterns that are mostly stored in the cerebellum.

Taken together the thinking and feeling systems are usually what we consider the mind or the personality. Willed behavior generally requires the two to work together, because when they are at odds it is difficult to do anything very effectively. When something is the logical thing to do but still feels wrong on an emotional level, you don't have "mixed emotions" about it - your thinking and feeling systems are at odds. The conditioning system can complicate things further, in that it can prompt the body to repeat behaviors that have been previously reinforced. This happens without any rhyme, reason, or goal. The conditioning system is like a machine - it follows the simple rules laid out by experimental psychologists like Skinner and Watson that apply to everything from sea slugs to humans. The "unconscious motivation" here is simple - the conditioning system wants to be reinforced. People with "addictive personalities" don't have a bunch of unresolved childhood "issues" that explain why they behave the way they do, they simply have conditioning systems that are stronger than usual and more capable of overwhelming the other two systems.

The key to working magick effectively is to get all three systems working together in a coherent fashion. A magician should set up conditioning loops that, for example, relate to the set of symbols with which he or she will be working. When you see red you should think Fire, when you see eight candles you should think Mercury, and so forth. That's what all those correspondences that we spend our time memorizing are for. Similarly, we must honestly feel good about what we are doing when we cast a spell. It's difficult to work magick if you feel guilty or fearful about using it, and this is probably the origin of Peter Carroll's idea of the "psychic censor." There is really no such structure in the mind that is fundamentally opposed to doing magick, but a child told from an early age that he or she would be damned by some deity for working magick will usually have to work at overcoming the emotions that they associate with casting spells in order to make anything work well.

Interestingly enough, the three-system model that neuroscience is currently unraveling maps onto the Tree of Life better than any of the psychoanalytic models. The thinking system corresponds to Hod and therefore Mercury, while The feeling system corresponds to Netzach and therefore Venus. Finally, the conditioning system corresponds to Yesod, the Moon. One of the ideas that I've been thinking about lately is to see if meditations on the paths linking these spheres might produce realizations that would help them work better in concert. So, for example, if you seem to be the sort of person whose thinking and feeling are at odds, you might be able to mediate the problem by meditating upon or working with Peh, the path of Mars, that connects Hod and Netzach. I have yet to do much experimentation along those lines, but it strikes me as potentially promising.

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11 comments:

Qabalier said...

"Furthermore, everything that depends upon the repression mechanism must be similarly rejected. You don't have an unconscious mind with its own desires, personality, and so forth, and there are no hidden thoughts floating around in your mind that need to be "processed" or "defused" or "analyzed." What you think is actually what you think. Full stop."

Thanks, I really needed that - a "second opinion".

Ananael Qaa said...

One of the most insidious things about the psychoanalytic model is that it makes us doubt ourselves. "I think that I'm thinking this, but what if I'm really thinking that?" This idea that everyone carries around a bucket full of potential psychic landmines left over from their childhood just waiting to go off can be a real detriment to any sort of spiritual progress.

As magicians what we really need to work on is the elimination of conditioning loops that don't serve our wills. This is best done using the basic principles of behaviorism, since the part of your brain that thinks isn't the same as the part of your brain that runs conditioned scripts. There's really no way to think yourself out of a conditioned response - you need to play by the rules that the conditioning system itself uses to get the best results.

Robert-Joseph said...

Modern psychology and metaphysics have been deeply tied, but I think it has more to do with psychologists who have become interested in metaphysics as a possible explianation for psychological problems, not the other way around. Granted magick depends on the practitioner achieving a state of positive emotional health and stability, to which psychological methods may be beneficial. And since about the 70s onward a good deal of the published magicians have held degrees in psychology, further confusing the two.

I do think psychology benefits from a metaphysical understanding and that a lot of the limitations of modern psychology are due to a general disbelief in metaphysical causes.

For instance I've noticed a phenomena in some people where they have past life seepage. Basically bits and pieces of past life memories come through without the corresponding memories and events that shaped them. As an example, you can have a situation where a person who has been molested as a child in a past life exhibits behavioral symptoms of child sexual abuse as both a child and an adult, but lacks the event and initial trauma that caused them. Treatment in turn can be much more difficult, since the patient lacks the inciting event and likewise has no way to understand it, change their coping mechanisms, and overcome it.

As another example I've noticed that true otherkin have personalities and understandings which are only partially human, and still retain a good deal of their thought processes and understandings of their previous self. Because of this they think and feel differently than normal people, and unlike most people lack the ability to use themselves as an example to understand human nature. Because of this they tend to have difficulties interacting socially and find it very hard to understand other people and have a skewed natural instinct for what is and isn't proper. Many get labeled with mental and learning disabilities, everything from autism to antisocial behavior, when in actuality they have a basis in a very different and distinctive thought process.

The idea of memory being fluid is interesting. We tend to look at time with the future always completely open, the past being absolute, and the present as some medium in between. What we know of theoretical physics though, things can move either way through time, and this has even been proven in controlled experiments. It would seem that, with physics, there's a consensus that with all things the door always has to swing both ways, and this is a metaphysical truth as well. The future is only the future and the past the past because of our perception, if we were to turn around, they would reverse.

And so the past is not as solid as we like to believe. It actually can be affected and changed via magick. It's not completely fluid, it can be changed, but with much greater difficulty than the future.

It's being manipulated rather regularly in fact. If you strengthen your mind well enough, and become aware enough of your surroundings, you can sometimes retain the memories of things that happened prior to them changing.

Ananael Qaa said...

Modern psychology and metaphysics have been deeply tied, but I think it has more to do with psychologists who have become interested in metaphysics as a possible explianation for psychological problems, not the other way around.Most of the psychologists that I know who became interested in metaphysical ideas were more looking for psychological methods embedded in the old systems of magical practice, kind of like pharmacologists who investigate herbal medicine in different parts of the world. The scientific method produces fast results and is excellent for evaluating high-probability events, but sometimes organic systems that sort their data over long periods of time can make conclusions that the scientific method would have difficulty reaching. An example of this from the literature is Carl Jung's Psychology and Alchemy. Jung wasn't looking for metaphysicial explanations for psychological processes, he was trying to work out how alchemical ideas could be applied to psychological processes when treating patients.

On the other hand, there have been a few psychologists who have tried incorporating metaphysical ideas into their practices. I don't remember the author's name off the top of my head, but there was a psychologist years ago who published a book explaining a psychotherapy method called "depossession." The idea was actually pretty similar to the metaphysical framework behind exorcisms but done with hypnosis and psychotherapy methods rather than magical rituals. The process worked by identifying spirits that had attached themselves to the patients and then convincing them to leave, which supposedly resulted in marked improvement. I'm guessing that the method was hard to replicate since as far as I know nobody else uses it, and I haven't heard anything about it in years. But maybe it was never taken seriously because of the paranormal aspect, I can't really say without more research on my part.

Gordon_Finn said...

Sounds like what's used in magick in the area of india and some parts of the middle east.

Psyche said...

For more along this line, I highly recommend Daniel C. Dennett's Consciousness Explained.

Ananael Qaa said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll have to check that out at some point.

Sincerus Renatus... said...

"Controlled experiments have shown that the success rate for psychoanalysis over the course of one year, an impressive-sounding 70%, is no different than that for "sham therapy [...] modern cognitive-behavioral therapy is the only form of talk therapy that has ever been capable of exceeding the 70% threshold in controlled experiments, averaging out around 80% or so. This suggests that the cognitive-behavioral model of the mind simply works better than what Freud proposed."

I suggest studying the reasarch made by Scott Miller. He has compared several meta studies and made his own, and come to the conclusion that there is not one single superior form of method in psychotherapy.

On the other hand a recent German meta study of psychoterapies (the largest meta study made) actually shows that psychodynamic therapy is more effective compared to CBT, especially with severe psychiatric conditions.

"The first of these is the system that we use for what we normally consider thinking and reasoning. It corresponds to the neocortex and particularly the frontal lobes of the brain."

This corresponds to the conscious and secondary process thinking, as proposed by Freud.

"The second is the emotive system that produces our feelings, corresponding to the limbic cortex."

This one corresponds to the unconscious primary process thinking.

I suggest looking up the term "neuropsychoanalysis".

In Licht, Leben und Liebe,
S:.R:.

Ananael Qaa said...

If there are people out there incorporating neuroscience and psychoanalysis I'm all for it. I can see where if you took the psychoanalytic model and pulled out all the stuff that's contradicted by experimental results you probably would be left with something pretty interesting. I'll check that out. I can especially see where, for example, the fact that your memories are changed every time you recall them could dovetail nicely with certain psychoanalytic methods, but that would require the abandonment of the "it's all in there, it's just repressed" Freudian conceptualization.

I'm aware that you can map the psychoanalytic model to just about anything, including various brain processes. But that's a weakness, not a strength. If a theory can explain any possible observation then it has no predictive power. One of the things I probably should clarify here is that my problem is not with the idea of unconscious processing, but rather the idea of an "unconscious mind" - that is, a subset of cognitive functions that are outside the bounds of declarative thinking and which have the characteristics we normally associate with "mind" such as thoughts, reasons, motivations, and so forth.

The conditioning and emotive systems do perform processing that the thinking system doesn't, so in that regard they can certainly be considered "unconscious." However, to impart any sort of volition or motivation to them is an error. The conditioning system especially is basically mechanical in nature, following a set of very simple rules that you have to exploit in order to change its functioning.

Gabi Gabriel said...

Hi, i really liked your post and it was like a breath of fresh air, confirming what i thought about how our brain functions. I want to ask you can you give me some resources for your article, some references studies or articles... i would like to delve deeper into this topic. Thanks

Scott Stenwick said...

Here are some popular articles on some of the ongoing research with memory plasticity. The big focus right now is developing drug treatments that will erase traumatic memories - that is, they interfere with the consolidation stage as a memory is rewritten. The declarative information is retained, but related emotions and conditioning loops are essentially stripped from it. The hope is to develop this for the treatment of PTSD and related conditions.

Should We Erase Painful Memories?

Creating False Mouse Memories

Cure For PTSD? Drug Erases Memories During Sleep, Mouse Study Shows

Back then much of the research was being done on mice and rats, but it has moved on to humans at this point.