Our conscious experiences are an expression, or encoding, of a mostly unconscious, nested, hierarchical network of memories. How deep does this network go? Where do the memories end and the things we are aware of begin? We seem to be aware of a world of things and stuff. Yet all of this is known to us only because of the memory structures that unconsciously impart content to consciousness. It is a strange and elusive situation. Luckily, Leibniz helps us get a handle on it.
Contents for The Yogic View of Consciousness:
|Intro||Ch 1||Ch 2||Ch 3||Ch 4||Ch 5||Ch 6||Ch7||Ch 8|
|Ch 9||Ch 10||Ch 11||Ch 12||Ch 13||Ch 14||Ch 15||Ch 16||Ch 17|
|Ch 18||Ch 19||Ch 20||Ch 21||Ch 22||Ch 23||Ch 24||Ch 25||Ch 26|
|Ch 27||Ch 28||Ch 29||Ch 30||Ch 31||Ch 32||Ch 33|
We continue our exploration of the Cave of Consciousness. We are discovering that the Cave and the Screen are intimately interrelated. What is buried under our surface consciousness cannot be easily distinguished from the surface itself. What ties them together is memory. In this chapter we go deeper into the memories in our minds. There are two tasks to accomplish.
First, we want to tie the modern view of memory back to the classical psychoanalytical views of Freud and Jung. There are a few reasons to go through this exercise: (1) showing links between past and present views is aesthetically pleasing, (2) it illustrates the depth, ubiquity, and pervasiveness of memory on conscious functions, and (3), it will bridge our Western understanding to the abstract yogic ideas presented earlier about the inner worlds hidden under our surface consciousness.
Before we can tie all this back to yoga, we must undertake the second task, which is to elaborate on the idea that conscious experiences encode unconscious memory structures. The encoding is very abstract. However, taken in net, the encoding of the unconscious generates our normal surface consciousness. Realizing this allows us to begin to understand how samadhi functions to decode the unconscious memory structures hidden in consciousness.
How Deep Does It Go?
Having previously established that our conscious mind is shaped by a network of memories that is mostly submerged in unconsciousness, it is an easy downhill slide to Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. We first give a general overview of Freud’s and Jung’s ideas. Each of these men wrote a lot, and much has been written about them by others. As with Leibniz, I will not pretend to be erudite about Freud and Jung, but just outline their main ideas.
Freud and Jung were karmically tied at the hip. Jung was a student of Freud. They had a falling out after working together for a while. Freud had a more confined view of the unconscious mind. Jung saw it in larger terms.
Freud’s big contributions were, first, to recognize the existence of the unconscious mind, and second, to attempt to elucidate its structure. The structure of the unconscious was captured in his trinity of id, ego, and superego. I am not so interested in regurgitating Freud’s idea verbatim, but to explain them in terms of the memory structures we have already discussed and thereby show that Freud’s ideas can be interpreted in terms that are quite sensible.
The id can be identified as all the unconscious biological and vegetative processes that operate at reflexive and instinctive levels in the brain; think NTS and hypothalamus. Obviously these feed into our conscious mind and cause us to eat, drink, sleep, and have sexual desires, among many other things.
The ego is the personal memory network we have been discussing. Freud of course dwelt a lot on how past experiences can mess a person up. One may be tempted, in the Freudian context, to think only of the episodic declarative memories that encode our past experiences. However, we have seen that all the memory types are intimately networked and so, with one comes all. Thus, whatever limits Freud had in understanding memory need not confine our thinking. Most important, we revisit Freud with the understanding that memories are not just sources of pathology but, as we have been discussing, a core element of our conscious experiences.
The superego can be mapped to the interactions of the personal memory networks of many people, i.e. society. Our individual minds obviously do not function in isolation. The social interactions themselves form a complex nested hierarchy. We exist inside of nested social groups: family, community, state, nation, world, and whatever other clubs, in-groups, and granfalloons we may belong. The superego can be thought of as how a single individual copes within this milieu of shared symbols, meanings, and behaviors we generally call culture.
Freud’s major contribution was to package all these factors together into a new (for the time) concept: the unconscious mind. He recognize that most of the information contained in the id, ego, and superego constructs was buried underneath direct conscious apprehension. Being out of sight, these factors could make problems for individuals.
Freud identified how the personal memory network (i.e. ego) can form conflicts with: (1) itself, (2) with the biological network (id), or (3) with the larger social network in which it is embedded (the superego). Freud was fond of the conflicts between biology and society (id vs. superego) with regard to sexual desires. There is certainly plenty of conflict possible between these levels. Our current society, with its loose sexual mores does not obviate these conflicts. It does provide the advantage of bringing them out of the unconscious mind and into the light of consciousness, and thereby vindicate Freud, at least in part.
The direction Freud took all this was to develop his particular brand of psychoanalysis, which, unfortunately, struck many as something resembling a cult. Although it made a big splash on the general culture, scientifically speaking Freudian theory never extended much beyond psychiatry. Meanwhile, as the 20th century progressed, psychology and the neurosciences passed Freud by. As we have seen, however, the general idea of an unconscious mind never went away. It eventually resurfaced in a tidier, more general package, of which Baars’ idea of “contexts” may be the cleanest representative.
In sum, Freud recognized that the biological, personal, and social levels formed unconscious structures that affect the conscious mind. It was a big advance for the Western intellect at the time, and has since become ubiquitous in our understanding, even if not in the exact form Freud envisioned.
However, focusing only on the biological, personal and social was a rather limited scope when considering human experience. Jung took it to the next level.
Jung took Freud’s ideas and extended them to deeper types of memory structures. Freud’s trinity of the unconscious mind was more contingent and specific: one’s specific biological condition (id), specific life history (ego), the specific society one lives in (superego), etc. Jung’s was a more general and impersonal view of the unconscious. Jung gave credence to something Freud did not take into account. We can call it, if so inclined, the spiritual dimension of humanity.
Jung recognized that people’s wills can sometimes reflect something deeper than just the contingencies of taking care of one’s bodily needs, personal desires, and coping with society. Jung recognized a “divine spark” in humanity that drives it to constantly keep trying to transcend its limits. This urge of self-transcendence provides a nice working definition of the idea of “spiritual” that frees one from the airy-fairy mythology that surrounds institutionalized religions.
On this basis, Jung interpreted at least some of the knots and conflicts hidden in the buried depths of the mind as expressions of this self-transcending urge. Jung called this individuation. This was in addition to the levels Freud identified. Jung did not wholesale reject Freud. He just had a larger view of the structures and functions that can form and operate in the unconscious mind.
In addition to the self-transcending urge, the other important contribution of Jung was his recognition of the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious are structures and functions shared by all people, at all times and places, in their unconscious minds. He called these structures “archetypes” and made the term a household word. The idea traces back to Aristotle’s “essences” or Plato’s “ideal forms”. Jung explored how many of these archetypes function in the human mind.
Thus, Jung took Freud’s idea of “unconscious” and ran with it, plumbing its depths in a way that made even Freud uncomfortable; hence their falling out.
A point to note now, and to which we return in the next chapter. In addition to studying the waking mind, the study of dreams factored importantly in both Freud and Jung’s approaches. Comparatively speaking, the study of dreaming has become constricted in scope in the current cognitive neurosciences, to the detriment of the cognitive neurosciences. The use of dreaming is clearly important in all this, and we come back to it later.
Freud, Jung, and Modern Views of Memory and the Unconscious
Perhaps the key differences between the thinking of Freud and Jung is captured best by the difference between the specific and the generic. We can readily reconcile these today based on what we know of brain function. However, the implications of the generic features of brain function have by no means been tapped out. I now elaborate a bit on this difference.
Let’s recall Baars’ definition of unconscious: that which affects conscious experience without itself being conscious. Obvious he did not make this up out of whole cloth. The idea goes back to Freud (and of course, Freud had precedents as well). Overall, there is a lot in common between Freud’s and Baars’ ideas. The personal unconscious of Baars’ Global Workspace theory consists of essentially the same elements of id, ego, and superego, only expressed in more modern terms, and without the psychoanalytic overlay.
I commented earlier that Baars identified something that had generally been neglected by 20th century neuroscience, which is how memories initially require consciousness but then become unconscious. This notion was implicit in Freud’s thinking, but never impacted the neurosciences. Thus, this fundamental insight of the intimate link between conscious and unconscious functions in the brain and mind entered the scientific picture in very crisp terms with Baars’ Global Workspace theory.
However, what has not made its way into current thinking about memory are Jung’s insights. Archetypes and the collective unconscious are still much too far-out for the cognitive neurosciences. This is not to say there have been no inroads in a Jungian direction. A key point Jung emphasized is that there are generic features of the mind. This idea has continued to gain currency in the neurosciences.
For example, Penfield recognized this in a clear way by discerning two main aspects of cerebral cortical function. The first he called the “personal computer” which refers to innate (i.e. generic), genetically-programed functions, including the sensory and motor systems. One does not “learn” to see or move muscles per se; the functions are built into the very structure of the central nervous system. What one learns over time is how to use these built-in features of the brain. The second were “plastic” functions designed to deal with unique, specific, and contingent life events. This included the temporal lobe declarative memory system and the prefrontal cortex. Declarative memories, as we saw, encode one’s specific life events. The prefrontal cortex with its working memory provides the ability to adapt in real-time to changing circumstances. These brain functions have been labeled as “promiscuous” precisely because they are not locked into genetically pre-programmed patterns of function.
Another example where generic properties of the brain and mind are emphasized is in evolutionary psychology . Evolutionary psychology is premised on the idea that the features of the mind have evolved by natural selection because, well, brains (and the bodies they are within) are the product of natural selection. Evolutionary psychology talks about things like kin selection, the evolution of language, altruism, and, in general, more down-and-dirty biological stuff that conditions how our minds function.
Because of the common emphasis on generic factors, there is an intimate link between Jungian and evolutionary psychology. Consider this quote from Wikipedia that nicely summarizes some of Jung’s archetypes:
“Jung described archetypal events: birth, death, separation from parents, initiation, marriage, the union of opposites; archetypal figures: great mother, father, child, devil, god, wise old man, wise old woman, the trickster, the hero; and archetypal motifs: the apocalypse, the deluge, the creation.”
Birth, death, separation from parents, sex (implied by marriage), mothers, fathers, being young, being old: all of these are life circumstances encoded in our biology and common to all humans regardless of time or place. Or consider Jung’s words:
“[It is] a mistake to suppose that the psyche of the newborn child is a tabula rasa in the sense that there is absolutely nothing in it. Insofar as the child is born with a differentiated brain that is predetermined by heredity and therefore individualized, it meets sensory stimuli coming from outside not with any aptitudes, but with specific ones.”
This is from the Handbook of Jungian Psychology, page 75.
There are clearly intimate links between minds and biology. A central link functions, as Jung notes, at the level of heredity, which dictates the nature of what our brains are and can do, which in turn conditions how and what we think. Another quote from the Wikipedia article sets the tone for where I am going with all this:
“Stevens suggests that DNA itself can be inspected for the location and transmission of archetypes. As they are co-terminous with natural life they should be expected wherever life is found. He suggests that DNA is the replicable archetype of the species.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa! How did DNA pop into all this!!??
What does DNA have to do with the mind and memory? Recall our definition of memory: the storage of information. DNA is clearly stored information. It is, in fact, recognized in biology that DNA is a type of memory. It is a memory of how to cope with a specific environment. The expression of that memory is a species.
But who or what has the memory? We are biased in our thinking to associate memory only with cognitive and mental stuff and therefore with an agent that has a memory. However, things that are not self-agents can have memories. Computer memory is not intrinsically mental, and there is no agent involved. It is purely physical. We (stupidly) superimpose a mental overlay on what computers do. However, computers are not a great example because we invented them, and as an extension of us, it complicates the analysis.
On the other hand, DNA is a pristine example of memory in a non-agent context. That is, unless one goes the Gaia route and assumes the Earth is an agent of some sort. I’ve already asserted this is the case (e.g. the Earth logos), but I am not taking that tact at the moment. From just a simple physicalist’s viewpoint, DNA is not mental. It is physical, and it is biological. The usual idea of evolution is agent-free. In this context, DNA is clearly a form of memory existing in the absence of agency.
So, the link between DNA and ideas like the collective unconscious straddles the link between impersonal natural processes and our personal mental experiences. DNA is present in (the nucleus of) every cell in our body and relates to the memory in our minds in an indirect fashion. Using terms I used before, DNA provides an unconscious platform that frames or molds conscious experiences, not only by generating bodies with brains, but also by coding for brain structures that allow the formation of memories.
Can we then consider DNA to be an unconscious memory that frames our conscious experience? In the most general sense, yes. How can we make sense of this? Well, we have to ask ourselves:
What would Leibniz say?
Back in Chapter 13, I ran this Leibniz quote:
“We can also see that the perceptions of our senses, even when they are vivid, must necessarily contain some confused feeling. For since all the bodies in the universe are in sympathy, our body receives the impressions of all the others, and although our senses are related to everything, our soul cannot possibly attend to each particular thing. Thus our confused feelings result from a downright infinite jumble of perceptions.”
“In somewhat the same way the confused murmur that people hear when nearing the sea shore comes from the putting together of the reverberations of countless waves. For if several perceptions don’t fit together so as to make one, and no one of them stands out above the rest, and the impressions they make are all just about equally strong and equally capable of catching the soul’s attention, it can perceive them only confusedly.”
Some people have taken this quote, and others like it, to indicate that Leibniz was perhaps the first to describe the unconscious mind. I am certainly in this camp. Please allow me to elaborate.
Leibniz uses waves at the beach as his example. I could go with this example and talk about how a Fourier transform of the sound wave would begin to reveal the individual waves that make up the composite sound he refers to as “confused” (and you would understand to some extent because you read Chapter 16!). However, I think a better example to illustrate my point is tree rings.
We’ve all seen tree rings. They are very pretty. We can stain and shellac wood and make all sorts of useful and attractive things. However, we know that tree rings contain an enormous amount of information. “Hidden” in tree rings are the life history of the tree, the history of its environment, the chemical composition of the local atmosphere during the life of the tree, the law of radioactive decay, and so on. These things are not at all obvious from the pretty pattern we see when we cut a tree.
If we take what Leibniz is saying to its logical extreme, we can see that everything we are consciously aware of has hidden within it similar kinds of subtle and abstract information. The blue of the sky and a gorgeous sunset tells us about the nature of our atmosphere, the solar system, and atoms. The tides tells us about the Moon and the Sun. Lightning, which frightened our ancestors for millennia, held secrets that now power our human world.
What we in the West call “science” is us learning how to peer into our conscious awareness and reveal this hidden information. The world we sense outside of us is but the surface of something that runs very, very deep. The trick is understanding it the right way.
The same holds when we direct our attention inwards and peer at our minds. When something makes us feel happy or sad, this has hidden information about the kind of unconscious structures Freud and Jung discussed. When we imagine something, think a thought, or have a goal, each is the surface of a complex pattern, which, as we have discussed, is mostly submerged under our direct first-person awareness.
Hide N Seek
Stated simply: the unconscious is folded into, or hidden within, or encoded in our consciousness. van der Leeuw was not kidding when he said:
“There is nothing, there never was anything, there never can be anything but the eternal Rhythm of creation…On the one hand, in our normal consciousness, we can experience the fact of the limitation of the Absolute in the relative; on the other hand, in our experience of reality [Kaivalya], we find the fact of the liberation of the relative into the Absolute.”
What else is the “fact of limitation” but the veiling of consciousness by the unconscious? What is the “liberation of the relative into the Absolute” but the lifting of this veil of unknowing and revealing what is underneath? van der Leeuw is describing the process whereby consciousness becomes unconscious and then dispels the darkness to rediscover itself.
What we call “being conscious”, our first-person awareness, is a state where most of what is experienced is the unconscious in a deeply disguised and hidden form. It is mostly a state of darkness and ignorance because we do not consciously understand where it comes from or why it is. It is like the tree rings. We see something and think we know what we are looking at. We superimpose simple-minded ideas over it. But we do not see what it really is at all. This is the nature of our conscious experience. This is what Leibniz was talking about.
Leibniz’ “confused feelings” for which our “soul cannot possibly attend to each particular thing” is perhaps the most precise definition of the unconscious mind one can imagine. Once again, the Master nailed it.
What I am saying is there is a fundamental flaw in how we currently understand the idea of the unconscious mind. If we follow Freud and Jung and envision it as something that is the opposite of our conscious mind, we are misled in our understanding. If we go with Baars’ idea of unconscious as “that which affects consciousness but is not the direct content of consciousness” we are moving towards a more accurate understanding. If we go with Leibniz’ idea, then we basically hit the jackpot.
What does Baars’ definition mean in concrete terms? It means what Leibniz says above. To say it in other words: we misperceive it. We perceive it “confusedly”. Or to say it without the judgmental connotations: we do not decode the perceptions correctly. Like the tree rings, the perception is there: we are looking at it. We simply don’t know how to interpret it correctly to extract out the information that is proverbially staring us in the face.
When we figure out how to interpret it correctly, we are rolling back the unconsciousness. More precisely, we are eliminating the “confused feeling”. We are learning to decode the meaning of what is encoded in our conscious experience. We are coming face to face with the unconscious. We are banishing the darkness of our unknowing with the light of consciousness.
If we do this process using only our intellect and senses, we call it “science”. If we apply the whole of our mind to the task, it is called samadhi. (That was just a one sentence rehash of What is Science? for all you summary buffs out there!)
Which is where we pick up in Chapter 22.