FreudFor many years, scientists thought that consciousness was a peculiarly human phenomenon that resided in the cerebral cortex, that deeply fissured cap of fatty substance that overlies the more primitive ‘brain stem’ that we share with other mammalian species. The things that we didn’t ‘know’, our ‘unconscious’ mind, that raison d’être of psychoanalysts that controls our instincts and drives, was thought to be hidden down in the brain stem adjacent to those centres that control basic functions like respiration, temperature control, sleep and eating. Under certain circumstances, however, this ‘dark matter’ in the unconscious was thought to surface and influence our feelings, thoughts and behaviour, but it may be accessed through the psychoanalytical interpretation of dreams, symptoms, free association and behaviour. Freud called the conscious mind, ‘the ego’, representing the self or ‘I’, while the ‘unconscious’ was the ‘id’ or ‘it’. The purpose of psychoanalysis, he asserted, was to make the unconscious conscious, so that our reason for our drives and behaviour could be understood and changed.

Once an idea has been accepted, scientists try to fit their observations to that theory, but in Science, there is never any absolute certainly, there are just ideas that seem to fit our observations better than others.

In the beginning was the feeling.

Earlier this month, at a conference venue overlooking the Regent’s Canal just before it disappears into the tunnel that burrows under the London Borough of Islington, the South African neuropsychoanalyst, Professor Mark Solms claimed that Freud got it the wrong way round. The great man confused the content of consciousness, all the associations stored in the cortex, with its function. In 1923, he wrote that the ‘conscious’ ego is derived from the environment as discerned by our major sense organs. The ‘unconscious’ id, on the other hand, detects certain changes within the body as fluctuations in the tension of instinctual needs (or drives), which are perceived as feelings. So how, declared Solms, can the ‘id’ be unconscious? Consciousness emanates from the brain stem as feelings that include include desire, joy, hunger, care, curiosity, play, fear, disgust, sadness, loss, pain and are related to certain basic physiological functions. After all, we can all feel happy or sad without the mental capacity to recognise we are happy or sad, let alone reflect on what caused the feeling.

So, in direct contrast to Freud, Solms asserted that the id, representing our feelings or needs, is conscious, while the ego – all the stuff stored in our cortex – aspires to be unconscious. After all, we can only hold a very limited range of content in our conscious mind at any one time. The vast majority, 99.999%, is sequestered away unregarded until required. Similarly, most of our actions are automatic. Think of the way we use a keyboard, drive a car, play tennis. If we tried to think about what we are doing, we would instantly make mistakes.

So do our feelings about what happens make us aware of content tagged with the same emotional salience stored in the cortex? Is consciousness rather like a librarian searching the stacks with a torch for relevant content? Are we only conscious of particular associations, stored in the cortical stacks, when those are triggered by feelings? This would seem unrealistic, since the range of feelings even allowing for every minor nuance would only run in the hundreds if that while database of memories in the cortex, even allowing for complex associations probably amounts to hundreds of thousands. So is it more that what happens accesses memories and that their emotional tag causes us to react in much the same way as the immune system reacts to bacterial antigens displayed on the surface of macrophages? After all, the way we think about things can certainly affect our feelings just as our feelings influence the way we think. In science as in life, things are rarely either/or, but both.

It seems likely current awareness is a feeling state that creates associations with stored memories and tags them with a particular emotional salience, transforming drives and feelings into object and verbal representations so they can be worked through and then restored to long term memory. We can sense the way this works when we recall our dreams. Dreaming is widely thought to be the way the brain consolidates experience. Dreams have a certain content, often related to what happened the day before, relevant, albeit somewhat abstracted, associations and a theme that is related to feeling. If it were not for the feeling, conscious perceiving and thinking would either not exist or would decay away. A mind unmotivated by feelings would be a hapless zombie, incapable of managing the basic tasks of life.

If we ever doubted the role of the brain stem in creating consciousness, consider those children born with hydranencephaly, who have no cortical development whatsoever; just a fluid filled space where the cortex should be. They not only wake up and go to sleep at appropriate times, but they also demonstrate the whole gamut of emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, love/care as well as what may regarded as pre-emotions such as hunger, thirst, discomfort. On the other hand, people with very discrete lesions in the brain stem, can go into a deep coma even though the cortex is completely intact.

Even cows can get the blues

Other mammals have the same brain stem structures as we do and, as any pet owner will testify, demonstrate the same range of emotions. It is a fallacy to say that animals have no feelings; they might not be able to reflect on those feelings but they feel everything and respond appropriately to a whole range of stimuli. It is their ability to think through situations, delay gratification and develop strategy, that seems limited compared with ours; though within their own environment, chimpanzees, dogs, dolphins and many other species, show remarkable cognitive capability. One of the books, I received last Christmas was ‘The Secret Life of Cows’. It described a whole range of caring, exploratory, aggressive, contented behaviours in animals which we often dismiss as stupid. James Rebanks described much the same in his Herdwick sheep in his book, The Shepherd’s Life. Even whales express a range of emotional behaviour. Perhaps we don’t wish to think that the animals we slaughter and eat have feelings too.

 

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