Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Chaos and Personality: A Hypothetical Model of the Mind (1991)

[Author's Note: I wrote this paper in 1991 for the Paracollege program at St. Olaf College, where I received my undergraduate degree. I've been wanting to make it available online for some time, not necessarily because I agree with its conclusions almost 16 years later, but because it was my first attempt to assemble a model of how the mind works and because some of the ideas presented are proto-versions of ideas that are important to my operant model of magick. These days, my thoughts on the working of the mind run more along the lines outlined in The End of the Unconscious Mind, and unfortunately the Jungian model that I use in this paper does not stand up well to the elimination of the Freudian unconscious. Still, the model does provide some insight into my thought processes that have been developing over the course of the last twenty years. And yes, it's long. You have been warned.]


The mind has been the object of a great deal of speculation for a very long time. Only recently, chaos theory, a new movement in mathematics, has provided solutions to many diverse problems related to modeling the natural world. It may also hold the answer to unraveling the mysteries of the mind. This paper describes one possible way in which chaos theory can be applied to modeling the mind. The basis of this model begins with the theories of the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and goes on to incorporate findings from associationism and behaviorism, in addition to some of the mathematical findings of chaos theory. The result is a comprehensive hypothetical model of how the mind operates.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The End of the Unconscious Mind

Sigmund Freud is largely credited with introducing the idea of the unconscious mind into Western psychology. Freud's model was expanded upon by the members of his Vienna Circle, such as Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, and Wilhelm Reich, who went on to found their own psychoanalytic schools. While there are substantial differences between the method of Freudians, Jungians, Adlerians, and Reichians, all of these methods purport to explore the unconscious mind that is believed to be at the root of mental illness and psychological distress.

Israel Regardie famously recommended that ritual magicians undergo a course of psychotherapy prior to beginning magical practice, and a great deal of writing on magick also makes use of the unconscious mind concept. In the context of the Golden Dawn school, the elemental grades are said to balance and refine the contents of the unconscious mind, and in the modern school of chaos magick it is believed that the key to working magick is to embed a sigil into the unconscious in such a way that it can bypass the "psychic censor" that normally prevents magick from working.

Unfortunately for the adherents of the unconscious mind model, new research is beginning to suggest that an unconscious mind does not really exist, at least not in the way it is conceptualized by psychoanalysis. If the unconscious mind idea does in fact turn out to be false, the ramifications are significant for both psychology and the Western magical tradition.

Freud arrived at his theory of mind by beginning with hypnosis. He later moved on to the more familiar style of analysis when he found that while he could resolve problems quickly with hypnosis, the results tended to be fleeting and last only a short period of time. In my own experience, getting a post-hypnotic suggestion to last more than three days or so is very difficult. The main thing that Freud got out of his hypnotic work was an idea that has long since been refuted - the "it's all in there" model of memory. This was an easy mistake to make; subjects under hypnosis can recall all sorts of things in apparent great detail when responding to the promptings of a hypnotist. Freud hypothesized that since we cannot consciously remember these experiences, the information must reside in an unconscious portion of the mind. He proposed a simple threefold structure that consisted of the conscious mind, which is the collection of thoughts and ideas that we normally experience, the unconscious mind, which is the collection of thoughts and ideas that we cannot consciously remember without some effort, and the preconscious mind, which is a kind of buffer that allows information to be transferred between the conscious and the unconscious.

Freud still needed an explanation for why some pieces of information can be recalled and others cannot. This is the origin of the concept of repression, the idea that the conscious/preconscious mind refuses to retrieve information that is somehow linked to trauma. Much of Freud's system focuses on childhood trauma, and of course childhood memories are often the most difficult to recall. He linked this idea with mental illness, theorizing that traumatic material in the unconscious could produce powerful emotions in the unconscious realm that would sometimes "break through" into conscious awareness and cause neurotic reactions to otherwise ordinary situations. This mechanism depends upon the existence of an unconscious mind that processes information in a similar symbolic manner to the processing done in the conscious mind. In effect, without the unconscious mind psychoanalysis as a theory of mind really cannot stand, and in fact the unconscious mind concept is derived from the now-refuted "it's all in there" model of memory.

Modern research into hypnosis and brain function has concluded that what the brain appears to do in order to remember is keep a limited set of "shorthand" information that allows it to reconstruct a memory when it is needed. In other words, every memory is reconstructed every time you think about it. This is the reason that hypnosis is not used in court cases. It has been shown that witnesses under hypnosis often recall inaccurate information because they are in effect filling in the missing pieces with random thoughts or inferences based on leading questions from the hypnotist. Also, after hypnosis these witnesses tend to be completely convinced that the material they made up is the truth, because the shorthand representation of the memory has been updated with the new information. This is one of saddest facts about the "recovered memory" movement - what recovered memory hypnotists are actually doing is encoding new memories of horrific trauma into the minds of their patients, and these false memories may haunt them for the rest of their lives.

From this perspective, the "uncovering" process that goes on in psychoanalysis is not a process by which the contents of the mind are discovered, it is a process by which the contents of the mind are re-experienced and re-created on the fly. In effect, every time you associate through something with an analyst, the memory is being rebuilt and recoded. This process is somewhat random, and as a result it is not that effective. Some studies have shown that Freudian analysis is no more effective than going to an office and having a chat about your problems with an untrained person who simply listens. The Rogerian school of psychology in fact does exactly that. Carl Rogers' method consists of simply being a good listener and rephrasing comments made by patients to allow them to reconsider and reprocess what they are thinking. This method was parodied by an early "artificial intelligence" program called Eliza, which responds to any statement by rephrasing the words given into a question, but the fact is that Rogers did develop a reputation as a successful therapist and went on to teach his methods.

For years, scientific tests of psychotherapeutic techniques failed to produce much evidence that the any of the various systems and methods worked better than "sham therapy." More recently, however, one system has been discovered which actually appears to work better than the control condition. This system is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT differs from psychoanalysis in that it rejects the idea of an unconscious mind. Instead, it proposes that what the conscious mind interacts with is actually the brain's conditioning system (both classical and operant), and that maladaptive conditioning is in fact the source of most psychological distress. The cognitive component of the therapy teaches patients how to manage thoughts that trigger these bad conditioning loops and how to cultivate attitudes and decision-making that lead to more positive experiences, which in turn sets up a cycle of positive feedback between the cognitive and conditioning systems.

The CBT model has some interesting ramifications for magical practice. One of the reasons that I am a Thelemite is that new research often reveals Aleister Crowley to have been ahead of his time, and this case is no exception. Crowley discusses magick as a system of conditioned associations in Liber O vel Manus et Sagittae and the goal of Thelemic spiritual may be thought of as aligning the conditioning system with the conscious will and optimizing it to serve the Adept. This is a slightly different perspective than that found in some Buddhist schools, which teach the elimination of conditioning (called karmic formations or attachments), and also what it taught in the "darker" and more antinomian magical schools that teach the "undoing" of all conditioning and the tearing down of personality structures. Conditioning produces faster and more natural-seeming actions than pure cognition, and as a result it seems reasonable to suggest that an individual with no conditioning will likely be more effective than a person with maladaptive conditioning, but a person with optimized conditioning will be more effective than a person with no conditioning.

Some of Crowley's methods could perhaps be augmented by the application of modern psychological methods. An example is Liber Jugorum in which the student is supposed to train the conditioning system by making a small cut on his or her forearm whenever it violates a specific tenet determined by the conscious mind. B.F. Skinner, the founder of modern behavioral learning theory, proposed a basic model of the conditioning system that is comprehensive and which has held up to a great deal of scientific scrutiny, and he found that positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment for producing changes in the conditioning system. This observation suggests that a reinforcement-based version of Liber Jugorum might prove more effective than the punishment-based version, and I will see if I can put together something workable based on that idea at some point. Essentially, what you want to do according to modern behaviorism is reward the conditioning system when it does something right rather than punish it when it does something wrong - but how to do this well in practice remains an open question that requires more thought.

In some ways chaos magick is hit even harder than psychology by the end of the unconscious mind. I have always considered the "psychic censor" nonsense - it is supposed to behave kind of like Freud's preconscious, but with a built-in bias against doing any sort of magick for no real reason that I can fathom except to thwart the Adept's ritual work. Sigil magick does work, though, and any attempt to pull the unconscious mind out of the magical paradigm will have to provide an alternative explanation to the one given by Peter Carroll, Phil Hine, and others as to why. My own operant model suggests that a sigil is a convenient way of packing a lot of information into a symbol that can be visualized easily, gnosis merges the personal field of consciousness with a transpersonal field that transcends the psychological realm, and the sending and releasing of the sigil sends the information that it encodes into the transpersonal realm. The difficulty is not in bypassing some sort of censor, but in (1) getting the personal microcosm and transpersonal macrocosm to successfully align, and (2) sending the sigil with enough energy that it can successfully compete with the other information already present in the field. This, however, is just a preliminary hypothesis that requires more experimental work.

Magick can survive the end of the unconscious mind, even if psychoanalysis cannot. Aligning the conditioning system may be another way of looking at the Abramelin working in the psychological sphere, in which the "Princes of Evil" (the conditioning system) is bound the serve the Holy Guardian Angel (the cognitive system). Furthermore, adapting the cognitive-behavioral model gives magicians new tools for managing the reactive and conditioned portions of the mind and brain. Some Thelemic practices bear a strong resemblance to primitive cognitive-behavioral psychology and substantially predate the system as it is practiced today, which strikes me as more evidence that Crowley was on the right track in terms of his understanding of human consciousness.