Your mind isn't deep at all. In fact, it's flat.
In his new book, Nick Chater writes that what we see is what we get.
A box of crackers features the tagline, “Conscious eating.” An artistic subgroup embraces the Burning Man ethos: “Conscious music.” This self-declared genre arises from the same set that talks about techniques for “higher consciousness.” In every instance, the sentiment is obvious: my product is better than yours because there's something deeper going on over here.
Consciousness, from their perspective, is like a ladder descending into an unfathomable abyss. This depth can be penetrated, through meditation, through breathing exercises or austerities, through faith or sheer willpower or a combination of the two, or through, apparently, eating crackers. For some, higher consciousness is handed down at birth, from a past life, or bestowed by a teacher, as in the Indian idea of shaktipat. Whatever the method, everyday consciousness only scratches the surface. Something deeper exists, waiting to be mined by the steadfast observer.
A deep sigh of relief washed over me when reading that Nick Chater called the notion of higher consciousness “nonsense on stilts.” The British behavioral scientist doesn’t mince words in his new book, The Mind is Flat. While many believe consciousness to be a hidden mystery few can access, Chater's take on this evolutionary phenomenon is quite pedestrian. What you see is effectively what you get.
No amount of therapy, dream analysis, word association, experiment or brain-scanning can recover a person’s ‘true motives,’ not because they are difficult to find, but because there is nothing to find. The inner, mental world, and the beliefs, motives, and fears it is supposed to contain is, itself, a work of the imagination.
This is not shocking if you consider consciousness in its most fundamental regard. By definition, consciousness is simply what you’re paying attention to at the moment, which can amount to no more than four or five things. You can refine from there: the goal of meditation, for example, is to focus on one thing—a mantra, a candle flame, your breathing, something basic and accessible. Whether you’re an expert meditator or chronic multitasker, the effects on consciousness are physiological, not mystical.
Yet that’s not how we feel, which is why Chater’s book is likely to rattle many mental cages. An emotion, he says, is an interpretation of a physiological change in your body. He’s not the first thinker to posit this; Lisa Feldman Barrett wrote an entire book on this topic. While this will not square well with those who claim they know something to be true because they feel it, Chater’s point should not be dismissed. Anecdotal interpretations have the habit of often being wrong.
We actually have a limited set of feelings. Think about the innumerable issues that cause a stomach to churn. Context matters, and in this sense, our brain contextualizes the physical sensations based on past experiences. Memory is fluid but based on prior events. Essentially, Chater states that we're just making it all up as we go along.
We crave narrative and go to great lengths to fill in incomplete stories regardless of the validity of assumptions being made. This is why Chater thinks the role of psychotherapy is dated. He calls the Jungian notion of a collective unconscious “the astrology of psychology,” rather fitting given that Jung speculated that UFOs are psychic projections from our hidden collective drive. To Chater, comparing Jungian analysis to psychology is akin to relating astrology to astronomy. One exploits patterns of thought and behavior in an attempt to derive coherence, while the other relies on data to pinpoint exact locations and predictable patterns.
Chater believes psychotherapy feeds the illusion of a hidden depth and claims the industry is on the outs.
[Psychotherapy is] doomed by the fact that there is not a deep inner story that is hiding from you. Rather, you’ve got the first draft or a set of incoherent notes for a novel. You’ve got an incoherent muddle. And we’re all incoherent muddles to some degree. But when some of those incoherencies cause us problems, when we’re terrified of something we very much want to do, even something as narrow as a fear of spiders, these are conflicts in our thinking and reactions.
In his latest book, The Strange Order of Things, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes that feelings are “for” life regulation. They provide essential information to help us remain in homeostasis. If something is out of whack a feeling lets us know. Again, context matters. Our stomach gets jittery if we’ve eaten something rotten and when we’re courting a romantic partner. As Damasio states, feelings alert us to potential danger as well as potential opportunity. There is nothing metaphysical about the process.
But we perceive it to be other, as Chater writes. Instead of a perception refined by years of experiences, we come to feel that the deep well of the unconscious is simmering below the surface, like the famed kundalini energy at the base of the spine. Hyperventilate enough and you unleash its fury. Well, true, Chater might say—hyperventilate enough and your nervous system is certainly going to react in peculiar and dangerous ways.
Does this make psychotherapy useless? Not so fast, Chater concludes. First off, talking to another is proven medicine. Chater also says creativity is an important aspect of our humanity. Ingenious solutions can be worked out between a therapist and patient, provided it's understood as a metaphor. His contention seems to be assuming metaphor to represent reality as stated. Constructing new patterns of thought and behavior has therapeutic utility; uncovering unconscious motives or beliefs is not only counterproductive but dangerous:
The reason I think the unconscious is a dangerous metaphor is because it gives you the impression that mental things that are unconscious could be conscious. This whole idea of uncovering things from the unconscious and making them conscious has the presupposition that they are of the same type.
He compares this yearning for a hidden depth to Freud's iceberg: consciousness at the top, the real story under the surface, which Chater says is a mistaken analysis of how our brains actually work.
The things we’re conscious of—experiences, thoughts, fragments of conversation—are completely different in type from the things we’re unconscious of—all these mysterious brain processes, which lay down and retrieve memories, piece fragments of information together, and so on. The brain is doing lots of unconscious work—but it is not thought in any way we understand it.
What is unconscious can never be made conscious because the information is inaccessible by design. I’ll never be conscious of my liver detoxifying my blood, but if something goes wrong in that process I’ll certainly feel the result. If the unconscious could be made conscious, we’d never need a doctor to diagnose an illness; our body would tell us.
We’re just not as deep as we think, which is fine: we have plenty of work to do on the surface. Perhaps if we stop taking so many metaphors as reality, we’d get along much better, with ourselves and those around us. There’s plenty to see when we open our eyes. Closing them to seek a treasure causes us to miss the treasure right before us.
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Do you have a magnetic compass in your head?
The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.
- Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
- Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
- Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.
Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.
Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.
"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."
Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.
Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.
The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.
That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.
Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.
Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.
First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.
Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.
More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."
This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.
"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."
The Oedipal complex
The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.
That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.
Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.
But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.
Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.
An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.
The Freudian slip
Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."
"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."
In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.
According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.
"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.
Freud's case studies
Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."
It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.
For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.
Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.
Sigmund Freud and his legacy
Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)
Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.
If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.
When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).
Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.
But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.
With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.
On Thursday, New Zealand moved to ban an array of semi-automatic guns and firearms components following a mass shooting that killed 50 people.
- Gun control supporters are pointing to the ban as an example of swift, decisive action that the U.S. desperately needs.
- Others note the inherent differences between the two nations, arguing that it is a good thing that it is relatively hard to pass such legislation in such a short timeframe.
- The ban will surely shape future conversations about gun control in the U.S.
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