• Beam of Darkness

Neuropsychoanalysis #2: The Freudian Unconscious meets Affective Neuroscience.

So last post was a brief history of some key neuroscience findings so a very quick recap to what that amounts to:

There are two aspects to mental functioning:

  1. Brain Stem Consciousness (the feels)

  2. Cortex Unconscious (the contents or qualia, the world that we are imaging)

Now a word on Freud's model and how these recent discoveries in brain stem affect and cortical functioning re work his ideas.

Freud divided the mind into Ego and ID (let's leave aside the superego for the time being). His late model (the topographical model) offered a layered description of the mind going from base layer ID up towards the conscious functioning ego. Freud divided the brain into the same two provinces as we have seen:

Brainstem = ID

Cortex = Ego.

But Freud didn’t know about the brainstem and how the pleasure principle works and how it works in relation to the organism. That the organism is in perpetual search for homeostasis with pleasure/unpleasure operating kind of like an autometer.

However we can now locate the abstract model of Freud onto the tissue of the brain.

This is what Neuropsychoanalysis is.

We now know the ID is not unconscious - it is the source of all conscious.

The phenomenological raw feels from the brainstem extend onto the outside world imbuing it with qualities, which we can then reflect on what our awareness is about. All sections of the brain are striving towards a homeostatic state. In contrast Freud thought our consciousness comes from the external world. He thought this is how the 'talking cure' works . We drag words down to the unconscious ID to alter it. But this is wrong. Consciousness is coming bottom up from brain stem with feels, and the ego is managing that.

The drives are unconscious but the affect is not.

There is an inherent contradiction in Freud's model of the unconscious and it's relationship to the pleasure principle: How can a feeling be unconscious? We know we have a feeling. The ID cannot be both unconscious and follow the pleasure principle. We know from brain stem discoveries that feelings ARE consciousness. So rather the ID is governed by the pleasure principle, to reach a homeostatic state. These are the drives, these are our needs.

We'll get to them in another post but just to say there are 7 needs and sometimes they conflict.

This can cause major problems.

This is psychopathology.

Patients have feelings that are conscious and have cognitions which are complex and they can be self deceiving. This can be them mis attributing drives and cognition. The ID is not affectively unconscious. There are many drives and the drives conflict.

More complex feelings are built through cortex interaction with the brainstem. We will see in another post that the babies need for mummy, the separation distress is a primary affect but more complicated emotions like shame or guilt are secondary processes.

So wait if the ID is conscious, then where and what is the unconscious?

To explain this here's a diagram of how cognition works.

It was previously assumed that mental processes mean conscious processes. It was said cognition means consciousness: this is wrong. Freud said we have unconscious process and beliefs and he was right. Academic psychology re discovered that cognition does not need to be conscious. For example you may think you know why you are choosing one thing over another but you don’t. This sort of process was re discovered independent from Freud using other methods.

‘the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations… it may thus be regarded as a mental projection of the body.’ - Freud.

There was an example of a famous patient named H.M. This man had his hippocampus removed on both sides. He did not have conscious memories. This guy was studied over and over again. Apparently he was chill about all this because he couldn't remember having taken the test so it was all gravy. But something strange was happening. Although he didn't have conscious memories of the test he got better at the tests! He was learning unconsciously. He acquired the knowledge without knowing. It was discovered he had an unconscious memory system.

The view in cognitive neuroscience is that most cognitive processes are unconscious. Our everyday psychological processing is mostly unconscious. Our actual cortex consciousness, our short term memory is very small. It activates memory traces so that they can be held in mind. Millers law discovered that you are able to hold 7 things in mind at any one time.

That's not a lot.

The vast bulk of our memory systems are unconscious or in our pre conscious. Most of how we meet our needs is in our unconscious memory.

'...the ego is first and foremost a bodily ego' - Freud

If you have another look at that diagram you can see that long term memory is divided into declarative and non declarative.

  • Non declarative cannot be brought back into conscious memory.

  • Declarative can be brought back into conscious memory.

The pre conscious is declarative long term memory or explicit memory.

The unconscious is non declarative long term memory or implicit memory.

Neuroscience says the unconscious works something like this: I’m holding something in mind but I don’t have much room in the short term memory. Maybe the way I have coped with processing the world needs to be re worked in my pre conscious. This process is called consolidation. We are aiming for consolidation. Re consolidation is a re working of our mental predictions. We know that consolidation hasn't worked because the need comes back. Think about how you get to work in the morning. Automatic pilot I imagine? But it wasn't always that way. The first time you did it you have to look at maps, remember directions and all that stuff. Probably the second time you had to do something similar, using maps, worrying about directions, although you will have remembered something of your first trip. Slowly over time you start to build up an episodic memory, a little film in your mind. Now we are getting into your pre conscious memory. After a week of going to work you're going to a have few of these memories and so they start to become generalised into the next level of abstraction of semantic facts, verbal. As this is happening the information is becoming more deeply consolidated into your procedural memory, your non declarative memory. Until eventually you are on auto pilot. You know longer think it, you do it.

So the preconscious needs to be re consolidated and re consolidated and re consolidated and re consolidated into a non declarative memory.

'Neuron's that fires together, wire together.'

Cognitive psychology says non declarative memory (unconscious memory) is a wonderful place! It is where the solutions to problems are! They say that it is in the pre conscious that we find problems and unworked solutions. But psychoanalysis (and common sense) tells us this is not simply the case. We have bad habits, bad coping mechanisms that operate on auto pilot, unconsciously.

Nader discovered when you activate pre conscious non consolidated memory into consciousness the proteins that make long term memory dissolve. As Freud said ‘consciousness arises instead of a memory trace’. What that means is the pre conscious is plastic. It is alterable. However unconscious processes (non declarative) are hard to learn and hard to forget. They are not subject to revision. Why? Well because they’ve stood the test of time. This is good biologically speaking because the pre conscious is slow. You can think of memories as predications of how to meet our needs in the worlds, they are of the past but they are for the future.

  • Pre conscious memories are cortical.

  • Unconscious memories are sub cortical.

The processing of memories happens in parallel within the unconscious and pre conscious. Our pre conscious systems in our first 2-3 years of life do not really work.

These earliest years are laid down in non declarative memory aka the unconscious.

So emotional memory in the unconscious, with each department relating to a different need. Some of these early learnings are what's called single exposure learning. Fear for example. You try something once and it goes in. Fear memories become indelible. Another indelible one is attachment bonding. Like that first one with mummy. But this takes longer, she has to keep returning for around 6 months to build the attachment.

Mu opioids are found in attachment bonding. You know where they are also found? Heroin. If we have a bad early attachment then we will search unconsciously for the rest our life. The non declarative memory is indelible. In the unconscious there are many wholesome and useful predictions and there are some that could be better. And then there are others that are really really bad. But by remembering them we can’t re think them. They are unconscious process not conscious ones. The memory returns in actions but the need is not met. In the pre consciousness we can re think but prefer not to.

Solving issues causes mental work, bearing frustration, as Bion explores, is the bedrock of thinking. We must think to have our need met, we must think in the absence of the object. This is hard work. Especially if material reality does not provide. Patients can find themselves unable to bear the frustration of thinking. Maladaptive behaviour will come on top of the need in order to cope. Mark Solms puts it like this:

Patients Suffer from Feelings

People want to their needs met, they want their drives to be homeostatic but without having to go through the frustrating task of mental work. They want instant Nirvana. People create shortcuts to by pass this frustration (like taking drugs). This is a symptomatic relief but it's not a causal relief.

The need will return.

This is the return of the repressed.

In the next post I'll breakdown the 7 different affective drives.

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