Four sources, two videos and two papers, (one of each from Mark Solms) came to me from the website maintained by Norman Holland, distinguished literary psychoanalyst. They explore and explain the material that I’ve been reflecting on for years -- even decades -- in trying to solve the mystery of why some religious experiences (esp. those in traditional institutions) can leave people cold or even angry, while other experiences (often called “spiritual”) can give the same people meaning and even transcendence. What is happening? Can it be controlled? I return and return to the phrase "felt meaning."
I come at this material through the approach of an actor, which is essentially “what is it like to be this person? What is the essential and central yearning?" How to match my internal life to the one who is traumatized or ecstatic or simply in harmony -- the one who is trying to figure something out. It worries some people, because if I really focus on them, it seems as though I’m psychoanalyzing them, even invading or exploiting them. It makes them feel as though I’m imposing therapy on them in order to make them the way I think they should be. That’s a trespass and an imposition. It is exactly what I resent most myself when supposedly religious people try to impose their thoughts on me. I haven’t understood how to get past this wish to share that triggers flight and fear. Maybe in a book. But to be witnessed deeply and accurately is an incredibly intimate and rewarding experience.
It’s tough stuff to read. Psychoanalysis, “the talking cure”, is by definition oral, not writing. These are people who watch body language, choose words while watching to see whether they work. Put in only words the stuff becomes professional jargon, and sometimes not all the experts define the terms the same way. In fact, the knowledge is expanding so quickly and in such a surprising way that the vocabulary can barely keep up, a little like the constant need to invent terms for computer operations.
Here’s a little code for the discussion. epi eco evo devo
Only the “evo devo” part is widely recognized, but others add the “eco” to the front and I’ll just add the “epi,” though it’s generally part of the other three. The translation is “epigenetics” (the tiny molecular prompts that control the expression of genes); “ecology” including economics which is a large shaper of experience which is what creates and justifies the “epi” part; “evolution” which is now being expanded beyond the idea that one’s cells contain the DNA of one’s parents but also can carry expressions derived from experience across the generational gap back to grandparents; “development” which is the sense of unfolding the DNA in reality and knowing that much of the DNA is not dictating just structures of the body, but controlling when the process should be turned on or off.
Here’s a quote from Mark Sohms in an interview on Bookslut.
http://www.bookslut.com/features/2007_05_011064.php It’s an old interview, but the concepts have still not been grasped by most of us.
“Genes contain within them all manner of potentials, which then needs to be activated, and the penetrants of a gene, the expression of a gene, has everything to do with what that genetic mechanism finds itself -- with what environment it finds itself in. Genetic explanations have to be epigenetic explanations, which is to say that genetic explanations can only be explanations which articulate how a particular genetic potential was activated by a particular environmental circumstance. That is how genes work. People are quite wrong in thinking of this kind of linear causality, this predetermined destiny that they seem to think is how genes operate.”
“What is distinctive about neural tissue is that it doesn’t just mature and unfold, that this is the way these cells are going to be connected and it's kind of predetermined. Neural tissue's most distinguishing feature in relation to other tissues is that its connectivity is dependent upon experience. That is, the connections between neurons are a record of the activities of those neurons, which are in turn a record of what has happened to you. Your neurons are activity-dependent: if you don't activate a certain connection between neurons, then that connection simply atrophies and withers away. If you do activate that connection, then it strengthens and new neural tissue grows. Neural tissue grows in response to the environment, so that your brain is a unique record of your life experience. So to say that anatomy is destiny, when referring to neural tissue, is simply to say that you are an expression of your past. The link between the two comes down to the fact that these genes in our neurons are activated by the firing of those neurons, which are in turn responsive to environmental happenings. So that is why I say that epigenetics is the only way to think of genetic lines of explanation. These tabloid headlines of gay genes and criminal genes and god knows what is based on a gross misunderstanding of how these things really work. It's very much more complicated than that and the crux of the matter is that genes and environment work together always.”
The white chair
I added the emphasis.
Solms works on Freudian materials, but at the most basic (and therefore the least controversial and most useful) level. That is, he’s not fussing around the narcissistic accusations or the death wish and other pop derivations, but rather looking at the most basic understandings of consciousness and identity. He directly claims that “consciousness” in the terms we think of as the “unconscious” is an ability that arose with the multicellular animal as a way of keeping track of how the creature is doing on the whole. It is not cognizant, but it’s the “dashboard” to use computer talk. It MUST be there and working in order for the creature to stay alive and self-guiding. But it’s not necessarily available for reflection: most of it is not perceptible without equipment like fMRI or a glucose monitor or something so simple as a mirror for observing one’s own facial skin tone while one blushes or blanches. The controls are through the autonomic nervous system, the limbic system, the brainstem, and other deeper brain functions (including moods of suffering and elation). There is a tiny part the size of a jelly bean that Solms mentions as crucial. (It took me a while to track it down: the periacqueductal gray, an interface between the brain stem and higher parts of the brain.) If it is destroyed, unconsciousness, the deep functions, do not go on and the creature is doomed. I still might not have this right.
In fact, my father died of a stroke, deep and central in the brain, and was alive for a few more weeks only because his breathing, his digestion, and even his body temperature was controlled by hospital “life support”. He showed REM but but was otherwise comatose. I don’t know whether he was dreaming and I don’t think anyone else knew either. I doubt it.
What we think of as “consciousness” is in fact the functioning of the cortex, the larger covering and frontal part of the brain where we remember and rationally reflect. A person can live with no cortex and babies are born without this important part. A toddler-aged baby was brought to a UU conference I attended. She was a beautiful child who woke and slept, laughed and cried, played and probably dreamt, but could not speak or walk. EVERY VERTEBRATE HAS CONSCIOUSNESS IN THIS SENSE. Only humans have the cortex functions that are reflexive -- can be reflected upon. Cognisance. Solms suggests that the consciousness in this sense is Freud’s Id, the drives and raw material. The cortex functions -- esp the prefrontal lobes -- are the Ego, always pondering how to satisfy and protect the Id.
As an adult my brother fell in a way that smashed his forehead. He seemed perfectly normal until you were around him a while. Then you realized that he was deflecting, fabulizing, failing to remember or plan or synthesis. He had damaged the prefrontal cortex that is the main location of Freud’s ego.
This is only the thin entering wedge of a whole body of material that is a relief in many ways as it throws out a lot of fossilized blaming that people use against each other.
The conscious id Mark Solms